Appendix G
Defining “Healthy Foods”

Definitions of the term “healthy foods” vary depending on the source and context.  For the purposes of the Washington State Nutrition and Physical Activity Plan we have used this term in a general way to suggest foods that provide essential nutrients and support health.  This usage is consistent with all of the definitions presented below.

Which Foods Does the Access to Healthy Foods Coalition Consider Healthy or Healthier?

Access to Healthy Foods Coalition [coalition was dissolved in 2013]

To determine which foods are healthy or healthier, Access follows the 2005 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which directly links to the food guide pyramid, a nationally recognized system.

The Access definition for healthy foods:

A healthy food is a plant or animal product that provides essential nutrients and energy to sustain growth, health and life while satiating hunger.

Healthy foods are usually fresh or minimally processed foods, naturally dense in nutrients, that when eaten in moderation and in combination with other foods, sustain growth, repair and maintain vital processes, promote longevity, reduce disease, and strengthen and maintain the body and its functions. 

Healthy foods do not contain ingredients that contribute to disease or impede recovery when consumed at normal levels.

What is the definition of "healthy" when used on a food label?

United States Department of Agriculture, Federal Drug Administration

Manufacturers are allowed to make a "healthy" claim on food labels. However, the FDA's definition of "healthy" differs from the USDA's definition because of the types of foods that are regulated by each agency. Under the FDA, a label may say "healthy" if the food is

  1. low in fat and saturated fat
  2. limited in amount of sodium and cholesterol
  3. provides at least 10 percent of one or more of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein, and fiber (for single-item foods).

Raw, canned, or frozen fruits and vegetables and certain cereal-grain products do not necessarily need to meet these criteria and can be labeled "healthy" if

  • they do not contain ingredients that change the nutritional profile
  • they conform to the standards of identity
    (1) enriched grain products which call for certain required ingredients (vitamins, minerals, protein, or fiber).
    (2) meal-type products (large enough [6 ounces] to be considered a meal) provide 10 percent of the Daily Value of two or three of these ingredients, in addition to meeting the other criteria
  • sodium content does not exceed 360 mg (milligrams) for individual foods and 480 mg for meal-type foods.

What is the definition of “healthy” in terms of healthy food?

The European Food Information Council

The following was taken from a discussion of the term “healthy foods” by Susan Alderman, United Kingdom.

Nutrition professionals avoid using the term “healthy foods” because whether or not a food is healthy depends on what our nutritional needs are, how much and how often we eat, and what else is in the diet. No single food provides all the essential nutrients. A healthy diet includes appropriate portion sizes of a variety of different foods (vegetables, whole grains, fruits, dairy products, legumes, lean meats, poultry and fish and enough fluids like water). A healthy diet reduces the risk for obesity and chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Healthy eating and lifestyle are important to our feeling of well being and enjoyment of life.