If language is what sets humans apart from animals, then the words we use to describe nutrition, health, diet and wellbeing occasionally leave humanity confused. Not even the best-educated human beings can always understand the jargon of nutrition. We put together our own “nutritionary” – a dictionary to help decipher the nutrition terms thrown around in the media, research papers and journals.
- All natural
- Australian Dietary Guidelines
- Australian Guide to Healthy Eating
- Body Mass Index
- Food Label
- Glycemic Index
- Gut-Brain Axis
- Gut Microbiome
- Health Claims
- Health Star Rating
- Nutrition Information Panel
- Nutritional Immunology
- Nutritional Psychiatry
- Personalised Nutrition
- Plant-based Diet
- Resistant Starch
This term can literally mean anything. Some claims made on food and drink packaging say a processed food or drink is “natural” or “all natural” or even “made with natural ingredients”. “Natural” and “All natural” is an unregulated claim. Unlike the word “ certified organic”, which has strict requirements to meet as set by the certifying organisation, “natural” kinda, sorta, vaguely means the ingredients are close to their pure or original state. That doesn’t always mean it is the “healthy” option. The “natural” or “all natural” claim plays on the idea that natural is somehow better than artificial, and it’s likely this is true for some ingredients. However, not all “non-natural” ingredients are harmful. For example, ascorbic acid is a non-natural, lab-created form of Vitamin C which can deliver a stable source of the nutrient to manufactured foods.
Antioxidants can be found in a variety of different foods and studies have shown they help prevent damage to the body by mopping up ‘free radicals’, a bit like a magnet for the cellular waste your body creates. Some antioxidants are nutrients like vitamins A, C and E but others are minerals like copper, selenium and zinc. There are also non-nutrient antioxidants like phytochemicals and flavonoids, most commonly found in a range of fruit and vegetables. There are possibly thousands of substances that can act as antioxidants, each interacting with the body in a way to protect against the cell damage that free radicals cause, which have been linked to the diseases of ageing. A diet high in antioxidants may reduce the risk of things like heart disease or some cancers as they mop up the free radicals from the body and prevent inflammation. Antioxidants are more effective when consumed as whole foods rather than supplements, which is why the dietary guidelines encourage us to eat a wide range of whole foods such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrains. Some antioxidants are added to packaged foods to act as preservatives to extend the shelf life of food or prevent fresh fruit from going brown when cut. The greater variety of highly coloured vegetables and fruit you eat, the more antioxidants you are likely to be consuming and the greater protection you will get against disease.
ADG – Australian Dietary Guidelines
The nutrition world abounds with acronyms, and this one stands for the Australian Dietary Guidelines, which were most recently published in 2013 having been reviewed from the 2003 Guidelines. The federal government recommends we follow five key guidelines about the amount and kinds of food we need to eat for health and wellbeing. These five guidelines are:
- Achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
- Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods
- Limit intake of foods containing saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and alcohol
- Encourage, support and promote breastfeeding
- Care for your food; prepare and store it safely
The Australian Dietary Guidelines are supported by the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, to help adults, older adults, children, pregnant and breastfeeding women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders eat the right types and amounts of food and drink every day.
AGTHE – Australian Guide to Healthy Eating
These visual guides are a resource to replace the old and well-known food pyramid that showed the five food groups. The Australian federal government now publishes eating guides that resemble a plate to reveal a more food-centric eating style showing every day and occasional foods. The Infant Feeding Guidelines were a new addition with the first release in 2012.
Not all fibres are created equal, and beta-glucan is one of the special ones. Beta-glucan is a group of soluble fibres, with different strains found in oats, barley, some mushrooms, yeasts, seaweed and algae. In recent years, beta-glucan from cereals such as oats and barley has received a lot of praise for its cholesterol-lowering benefits with the claim “reduces blood cholesterol” approved as a high-level health claim in Australia. This claim is often seen on oat-based products such as mueslis and granolas. Beta-glucan from oats is also available on the market as a powder. More recently, beta-glucan is being recognised for its role in gut health as a prebiotic, which provides immune system benefits as well. Many commercially available beta-glucan supplements marketed for immune health are derived from baker’s yeast.
This is a scientific term to describe the proportion of a nutrient absorbed from food or supplements that can be used in the human body to support normal body function. It’s used in nutrition to describe the degree to which a nutrient enters a body’s metabolism – in other words, it’s the amount of the macronutrient – carbs, protein or fat – and micronutrient – like vitamin C or beta carotene – that gets absorbed into the body. When it comes to food, not all nutrients from meat, grains, fruits and veg can be used by the body in the same way. Understanding nutrient bioavailability helps set the best intake recommendations and how to best consume foods. For example, if you eat foods rich in non-haem iron (iron from plant-based sources) and combine it with a source of vitamin C like lemon juice, then it increases the bioavailability of the iron.
BMI – Body Mass Index
Body Mass Index is commonly used in a clinical setting to assess whether someone is overweight, underweight or obese. Body Mass Index is calculated by using your weight in kilograms and dividing it by your height in metres squared.
BMI = kg/m2 where kg is a person’s weight in kilograms and m2 is their height in metres squared.
- Under 18.5 is in the underweight range
- 18.5-24.9 is healthy weight range
- 25-29.9 is overweight range
- Above 30 is obese
The BMI isn’t appropriate for all population and age groups, so check with a doctor or dietitian to determine the best measures of your health.
In Australia, Food Standards Australia New Zealand specify the requirements for information on food labels. By law, food labels need to contain a lot of information, which is why the print is often so small. Foods exempt from bearing a label include whole or cut fresh fruit and vegetables.
For food required to bear a label, these are some of the key pieces of information it must show:
• Name of the food
• Name and address of the supplier
• Advisory and warning statements and declarations, including allergen labelling
• Statement of ingredients
• Storage and usage directions
• Information relating to nutrition, health and related claims
• Nutrition Information Panel
There are other pieces of information required for specific products, for example the label on minced meat must declare the maximum % of fat in the meat.
GI – Glycemic Index
The Glycemic Index is a measure of the way carbohydrates behave when digested. The more rapidly carbs break down into glucose and enter the blood stream, the higher the GI they will have. Lower GI carbohydrates sometimes contain more fibre (like wholegrains) and protein, which also slows down the digestion process. To help manage feelings of hunger and prevent insulin spikes, it is recommended to choose low GI carbohydrate foods most of the time instead of the higher GI choices.
The concept of the gut-brain axis is crucial to the field of nutritional psychiatry, with more and more research showing that what we eat can affect how we feel, think and perform. The gut-brain axis is a two-way highway shuttling communication between the digestive system and the brain. A simple example of this two-way communications is the feeling of butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous or anxious. Likewise, stress often affects people’s bowel habits. Some of this communication is mediated through the microbiome and some through the enteric nervous system, often called the “second brain”. This nervous system allows the gut to communicate with the rest of the body, for example the smell of food sending a message to the gut to start producing gastric secretions to digest food.
The gut microbiome is the billions of microorganisms, mostly bacteria, that live in the gut. Surprisingly, the gut microbiome weighs about 2 kilograms. The bacteria in our guts help digest the food we eat, producing anti-inflammatory compounds as a by-product. Our microbiome is also involved in weight management, hormones, brain and other organ function. Each human has a unique gut microbiome signature, influenced by the type and numbers of bacteria we host. The microbiome develops throughout our lives, beginning from when babies consume breast milk rich in prebiotics. Microbial diversity is regarded as the key to good health, with this diversity impacted by factors like diet and antibiotics, but also by more curious things such as whether you were delivered vaginally or by caesarean at birth.
Health claims for food are regulated by Food Standards Australia New Zealand in Australia. There are two types of health claims that can be made about foods in Australia.
1. General level health claims refer to a nutrient in a food, or the food itself, and its effect on health. They do not refer to a serious disease. An example: “Protein for tissue building and repair.”
2. High level health claims refer to a nutrient in a food and its relationship to a serious disease or a biomarker of a serious disease. For example: “Folic acid reduces the risk of neural tube defects for women of child-bearing age. Consume at least 400 µg of folic acid per day, at least the month before and three months after conception.”
Note that these differ from nutrient content claims that simply state the nutrient content of a food without linking it to a health effect, serious disease or biomarker, say “This smoothie is a good source of fibre”.
There are over 200 pre-approved food-health relationships for general level health claims in the Food Standards Code. If businesses want to self-substantiate a food-health relationship not listed in the Standard, they can do so in accordance with detailed requirements set out in the Standard, including notifying FSANZ. As such, there is a list of notified health claims on the FSANZ website.
High level health claims must be based on a food-health relationship pre-approved by FSANZ – they cannot be self-substantiated. Currently, there are 13 pre-approved food-health relationships for high level health claims in the Code (as at 21 May 2020).
Health claims are only permitted on foods that meet the NPSC – nutrient profiling scoring criterion. This ensure that foods high in saturated fat, sugar or salt are not eligible to make health claims.
HSR-Health Star Ratings
Packaged food and drinks can carry a health star rating of up to five stars to indicate the comparative ‘healthiness’ of the product within a category. The health star rating system applies in Australia and New Zealand as part of a front-of-pack labelling system to offer a simple visual guide to the overall nutritional profile of foods and drinks. It assigns a rating from half a star up to five stars, with more stars indicating a healthier choice. It’s a government-funded system which is free for food and drink manufacturers to use on their packaging. Foods and drinks that carry the label must use the Health Star Rating Calculator to find out how many stars the product will be allocated. This calculator is also known as the ‘HSR algorithm’ and is subject to change as better ways are found to calculate nutritional profiles of food and drink.
Lactoferrin is a protein found in milk, with human colostrum “first milk” the richest source, followed by regular human milk and cows’ milk. Lactoferrin is a crucial part of the body’s innate immune system, playing a key role at mucosal barriers. The high concentration in human breast milk provides newborns and infants with immune protection due to its potent anti-bacterial and anti-viral action. For this reason, there is growing interest in using lactoferrin as a nutraceutical, for example in foods like infant and toddler formula. Lactoferrin in nutraceutical form is easily and cheaply produced from cows’ milk and could have immune-protective effects for both adults and children.
Minerals are small molecules essential to keep our bodies running smoothly. Minerals are derived from soil or water – we get them from the plants and animals we eat that absorb them from soil and water. There are five major minerals in the body that are needed in large amounts: calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium and phosphorus. Other minerals such as zinc are considered “trace elements” as they are needed in smaller quantities, however are still essential. For example, a trace element like selenium is needed in microgram quantities, while a major mineral like calcium is needed in milligram quantities. Minerals can be consumed from foods, dietary supplements, or fortified foods such as iodised salt. The key difference between vitamins and minerals are that vitamins are produced by plants or animals, not absorbed from the environment.
Nutraceuticals are foods or products derived from foods that claim to have specific health benefits, generally sold as tablet supplements. The word is a mashup of “nutrient” and “pharmaceutical”. Examples of nutraceuticals include garlic supplements that claim to support the immune system or probiotic supplements for digestive health. Nutraceuticals have become popular as they provide consumers with a quick and easy solution to health concerns or to improve their diet. Nutraceuticals are regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia, which oversees the safety and manufacturing processes. As nutraceuticals are not governed by the same regulations as food in Australia, it is easier to make claims on nutraceuticals – some of which have not been clinically substantiated.
NIP – Nutrition Information Panel
All packaged food and drinks sold in Australia have a nutrition information panel which shows the average amount of energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars and sodium in a serve and in a 100 gram (or 100 mL) of the food. If the food or drink also has a health or nutrition claim, then the nutrition information about the health claim must also be published. For example, if a yoghurt makes a claim about containing calcium, then the amount of calcium will also be on the nutrition information panel. Some food and weight loss apps like My Fitness Pal or Weight Watchers use the nutrition information panel data on a packaged food to show users the macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein and fats – and the kilojoules of foods.
Nutritional immunology studies the effects of nutrition on the immune system and disease. It is a broad field, ranging from studying the effect of nutrient deficiencies to preventing the development of inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. Other areas of interest include the role of nutrition in the develop of allergic diseases such as asthma. Nutritional immunology is a reasonably young field of study with a lot of diet-disease relationships still yet to be uncovered. We predict there will be a greater research focus on nutritional immunology as the world grapples with COVID-19, as researchers study the key nutrients and foods that can help support a robust immune system and strengthen the effectiveness of vaccines. This will be particularly important for developing countries where malnutrition and dietary deficiencies are common.
Nutritional psychiatry is an emerging field that studies the link between what we eat and the prevention and treatment of mental health disorders. Put simply, it’s the link between food and mood. Much of the early research in this field has been pioneered by The Food and Mood Centre here in Australia, aiming to find foods and dietary patterns that promote good mental health. Promising findings include results of the SMILES trial which found that a Mediterranean diet modified to suit the Australian food supply, which included foods like olive oil, oily fish, nuts and plenty of fruit and veg, improved symptoms of depression in those with moderate to severe disease. Watch this space – it’s an exciting and growing area of nutrition.
This word is a doozy, blending the word obese with the Latin word “genic”, meaning “causing”. It’s usually used in the context of an “obesogenic environment”, and describes a food environment that leads to the overconsumption of energy dense foods and drinks which lack nutrients and encourage weight gain combined with an environment that doesn’t promote activity. The word came into common usage in the late 1990s in relation to the rising obesity crisis and preventable lifestyle related diseases. With one in five Australians now obese, this term aims to put the focus on environmental change to help curb the obesity epidemic. Too often, individuals are blamed for their weight but the word obesogenic aims to encapsulate the physical, economic and social factors that make it difficult for individuals to maintain a healthy weight.
As scientists uncover more about how individuals respond differently to lifestyle factors, there has grown a market for ‘personalised nutrition’, that is solutions tailored to the individual. Examples of this include gut microbiome testing to identify which colonies are overgrown or underdeveloped compared to the healthy population, or tailored supplement packages based on an in-depth lifestyle questionnaire completed by the user. While many current personalised nutrition technologies rely on one source of data from one time point, such as a single blood test, the future will likely involve a continuous stream of data from multiple sources and devised to provide comprehensive, real-time personalised solutions. The CSIRO predicted that the personalised wellness industry will reach $550 million in value by 2030, with much research and development expected in the short-term.
Phytonutrients are tiny compounds found in plant foods that give plants their colour, taste and smell. Phytonutrients are crucial for the plant’s own defence, for example some protect the plants from insect attack. Many of these compounds have benefits for human health. For example, lycopene gives tomatoes their red colour and protects against damage from sunlight. In humans, lycopene is a powerful antioxidant and may protect against risk factors for heart disease. Each phytonutrient has a different function, so eating the rainbow is the best way to get a wide range of these powerful nutrients – think green spinach, orange pumpkin, red beetroot, white garlic and yellow capsicum!
This can be a confusing term and is often interpreted differently by people as a vegan diet or a flexitarian or pescatarian diet where they avoid meat and include fish and dairy foods. The most universally agreed definition is that a plant-based diet refers to a diet mostly made up of foods derived from plant sources. This can include fruit, vegetables, grains, pulses, legumes, nuts and meat substitutes such as soy products. The plant-based diet has been popularised in the last few years as evidence mounts that plant-based diets have positive health outcomes such as improved depression symptoms and better blood glucose control. Plant-based diets have also become popular among those looking to reduce the environmental impact of their diet. The plant-based sector has seen huge innovation in recent years, with the CSIRO predicting the alternative protein market like plant milk and yoghurts and meat replacements will grow 5% annually to the value of $4.5 billion by 2030.
Unlike probiotics, prebiotics are a special type of fibre that occur naturally in foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Prebiotic’s superpower is feeding the growth of our ‘good’ gut bacteria, which not all fibres can do. Like a nutrient-rich fertiliser, prebiotics help our ‘garden’ of good gut bacteria flourish. By providing food for the microbiome, they produce anti-inflammatory compounds like butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid. Prebiotic-rich foods include garlic, onion, legumes, asparagus, cashews, and even green bananas! Prebiotics can also be added to processed foods, usually in the form of inulin and chicory root fibre – you’ll find it in foods like yoghurts, snack bars and cereals where it also provides a thickening role. We’re also seeing new and novel prebiotics like green banana flour increasingly being added to foods. Prebiotics are a trending nutrient and ingredient that we’ll see more of as consumers embrace the importance of gut health and look for foods with these functional benefits.
Probiotics are live bacteria with beneficial properties proposed to have health benefits by improving or maintaining the gut microbiome. Live probiotic cultures are found in fermented dairy foods like yoghurt and kefir, and other fermented foods such as kimchi and kombucha, as well as in supplement form. Interest in probiotics began in the early 1900’s when Russian scientists proposed that the gut microbiome could be modified by replacing harmful microbes with beneficial microbes, after observing that Russian and Bulgarian communities that ate fermented milk products lived to a very old age. Not all live bacterial cultures can be labelled “probiotic”; only the strains proven to have health benefits such as some Lactobacillus strains.
Resistant starch is a type of prebiotic, which has been shown to have positive effects on gut health. Resistant starches arrive in the bowel undigested as they have been ‘resistant’ to digestion. In the bowel, they have a prebiotic effect, providing food for the microbiome. By providing food for the microbiome, they produce short-chain fatty acids like butyrate which promotes gut health as it feeds the cells that line the gut. The CSIRO recommends eating resistant starch every day – this can be in the form of legumes like beans and lentils, whole grains like oats (especially uncooked oats) or brown rice, and from cooked and cooled starches like rice, potato and pasta in dishes such as potato salad or sushi. The action of cooking and cooling starches changes the shape of the starch molecule to make it resistant to digestion, an easy way to up your resistant starch intake.
This is a made-up word and used loosely to associate foods with being magic bullets to solve our health and nutrition problems. Foods rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals are generally termed superfoods – everything from the acai berry to kale to chia seeds have been hailed as superfoods in the media, but in reality there is little scientific evidence into the amounts required for therapeutic or health gains. The fact is that all core foods from the five food groups are superfoods and should be enjoyed daily. Include core foods as much as possible to get the real superfoods in your diet every day.
Synbiotics are a new-generation of dietary supplements which essentially combine both probiotics and prebiotics. In order to be defined as a synbiotic, the supplement combination must be proven to provide some health benefit to humans. Some prebiotic and probiotic combinations might not provide benefit when taken together even though they provide benefits when taken separately, so the key here is trials and evidence to prove an effect. Some synbiotic combinations are called ‘synergistic’ meaning that the pre and probiotic combination work together to have an additive effect, say the prebiotic provides the fuel to allow that specific probiotic to thrive. Other combinations might have two separate health effects, so cannot be called ‘synergistic’.
The word “vitamin” is derived from the Latin word “vital” meaning life, and was named so to describe how these molecules were essential for life. Vitamins are small molecules produced by plants or animals, needed to keep our bodies running smoothly. While most people have heard of the well-known ones like vitamin C, there are 13 vitamins including some less common ones such as vitamin K which is important for blood clotting. A lack of vitamins in the diet can lead to deficiency diseases such as scurvy which is a deficiency of Vitamin C, however these diseases have become increasingly rare in modern times where dietary supplements are available and many countries have food fortification schemes. The key difference between vitamins and minerals is that vitamins are produced by plants and animals, while minerals are derived from soil or water.