Defining Some Current Language about Food

people eatingDo you understand everything the news media toss at you?  Keeping your vocabulary current is a challenge since new concepts continuously lead to the creation of new language.  Vocabulary related to food may involve words totally new to you. Often, they're from the language and cuisine of other countries.  But sometimes we hear familiar words used in new ways and common words combined into phrases that are confusing. Context may give us a vague idea of the meaning but not a precise one. Below is some clarification of the following: "health halo effect", "functional food," "food desert," "food insecurity," "traceability" and "sustainable/renewable resources."


Health Halo Effect


Definition: the perception of an edible item as healthful based upon one or more its attributes (from the Rutgers University Dining Team).


The halo effect may result from a mistake in the individual's thinking or an excuse to cheat on a diet.  "The box says these are low-fat cookies," you tell yourself, "so they must be lower in calories and healthier than ordinary cookies."  Or this rationalization:  "I'm eating a salad; I'm having a healthy, low-calorie lunch." But you've dumped a high-calorie, fat-laden salad dressing on it and are eating the bread and butter that came with the salad. 


A recent study from Cornell University (summarized in the University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter) revealed that the word "organic" has a health halo effect.  Participants in the study assumed that the foods labeled "organic" were lower in calories and higher in fiber. Chips labeled organic were also considered more nutritious and yogurt labeled organic more flavorful.  What the participants didn't know was that all the foods in the study (whether labeled organic or not) were actually organic.  The article points out that organic refers only to the agricultural method used to grow the food ingredients, not nutrition.  Organic foods may contain just as much (or even more) sugar, fat, and salt as conventional foods.


It's not only your own mind and cravings that trick you.  Manufacturers deliberately highlight one healthful aspect of the food and downplay unhealthful contents.  The soup that's labeled "low-fat" may contain more salt than the regular can of the same type of soup. Don't be fooled by the words highlighted on food packages and menus.  Check sugar, salt, and fat content.  The numbers don't lie, but the big letters on the container may deceive. 


To read more on this topic and find a link to an entire book on the subject, click on "The Health Halo Effect."


Functional Food


Definition: According to food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein, a functional food is one that is believed to have special benefits in the human diet.


The Wikipedia definition tells us a little more about when the phrase is used: "A functional food is a food given an additional function (often related to health-promotion or disease prevention) by adding new ingredients or more of existing ingredients."  Functional food can be solid foods, beverages, and supplements.    


Here's what Wikipedia says is NOT generally considered in the functional food category: foods that have been fortified because of government regulations, such as the addition of iodine to table salt or Vitamin D to milk.  On the other hand, foods that contain live cultures are considered functional because they have probiotic benefits. 


There is currently no legal definition for functional foods, says the Mayo Clinic.  However, many countries, including the U.S. oversee and regulate the types of claims that are allowed on food packages. 


According to Wikipedia, the term "functional food" was invented by the Japanese in the 1980s.  In Japan, there's a government-approval process for functional foods; it's called "Foods for Specified Health Use (FOSHU." Wikipedia calls functional foods "an emerging field in food science."  It's popular with health-conscious consumers and with businesses that want to stimulate interest in new or altered products. 


The growth of the functional food industry:  


According to an April, 2012 article in the IFT (Institute of Food Technologists) journal, interest in and the purchase of functional foods and beverages is on the rise.  Here is some of the evidence the article presents:


  • Estimate of 2010 sales of functional foods: $38 billion.  
  • Eight out of 10 Americans are making some or even a great effort to eat healthful foods.
  • 30% of consumers say they always or usually purchase products with labels that claim to improve specific health conditions (such as heart or digestive); 36% say they sometimes do this.
  • The two products most often purchased for specific health benefits: oatmeal and yogurt.
  • Beverages most often purchased for nutritional benefits: orange juice and cranberry juice.
  • The most consumed tea in the U.S. is green tea, known to be antioxidant-rich.
  • 88% of consumers believe that it's better to get vitamins and minerals from food than from supplements.
  • 28% of consumers look for products that are naturally rich in antioxidants.


Food Insecurity


Definitions: Streetwise (a magazine sold on the streets of Chicago by people who are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless) defines food insecure people as those who don't know where their next meal is coming from.  But that is not everyone's definition. The Texas Food Bank Network (TFBN) quotes this USDA definition: "Consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year."  The TFBN definition disagrees with the Streetwise definition because, it says, food insecurity is "episodic and often cyclical." 


Wikepedia gets at the meaning by defining its opposite: "a household is considered food-secure when its occupants do not live in hunger or fear of starvation."


What causes and doesn't cause food insecurity?


It is not related to living in a food desert or not having time to shop, says  TFBN; it is the result of a lack of "financial and other material" resources.  Feeding says this: "Although related, food insecurity and poverty are not the same.  Unemployment rather than poverty is a stronger predictor of food insecurity."


What are the statistics on food insecurity?


The website of Feeding contained this information (2012 statistics):


  • 49 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children.
  • 10 states had significantly higher household food insecurity rates than the national average (about 14.7%).  These states were Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, and California. 
  • Households with food insecurity that was higher than the national average included those with children, especially those headed by a single woman; black non-Hispanic households; and Hispanic households.
  • Food insecurity among seniors (those over age 60) was 4.8 million (4% or all seniors).


Who's helping?


Feeding America provides emergency food assistance to about 37 million low-income people every year.  Members of this organization include food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters.


There are also 3 government programs that help to meet the needs of those who are food insecure: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program), the National School Lunch Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.


In its October2-8 issue, the editor-in--chief of Streetwise Chicago expressed concern about possible cuts in government funding to programs that assist those who are food-insecure. 


Food Desert


Definition:  Because there is no standard, official definition of this term, it has been defined in many ways.  Here's the basic idea as expressed by the CDC: "Food deserts are areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up a full and healthy diet."  Lack of access is usually because people live too far from a large grocery store or supermarket to walk to one, don't own a car, and lack the means of getting to a big store on public transportation. If a consumer has nowhere to buy his/her groceries except a convenience store, that person's diet  is likely to consist mostly of frozen processed foods, chips, and soda.  


Food deserts have sometimes been defined by how close a person's residence is to a decent-sized store.  A recent Chicago Tribune article listed these criteria for an area to be called a food desert: a good store is more than 1/2 mile away from home and the store nearby is less than 2,500 square feet.  However, in Chicago in 2011, a new method of determining which areas should be classified as food deserts was developed.  It looked at what products were in the stores selling food in each block. The conclusion was that about 383,000 Chicagoans were living in food deserts.


Who's likely to live in a food desert?  Rural, minority, and low-income areas are often the sites of food deserts. 


The assumption is that people living in food deserts would eat a healthier diet if they could obtain healthy foods conveniently.  According to the CDC, many studies have suggested this connection, but more research is needed to determine how access actually affects what foods people buy and eat.


Solutions to the problem are 1) to encourage supermarkets to open stores in underserved areas, perhaps by offering the stores financial incentives such as tax breaks; 2) to encourage residents of food deserts to plant community gardens and grow their own fruits and vegetables; 3) to improve public transportation so that consumers living in food deserts don't find traveling to supermarkets a hardship.




Definition: Dr. Regenstein defines this term as follows: "the ability to know where something came from.  Most food manufacturers and processors work with one step back and one forward, i.e., they know where they got the materials they are using and to whom their products are being sent."


Who cares?  These days, a lot of consumers do.  Many consumers want to buy only locally grown or locally processed foods.  Also, many want to buy only organic food.  Some consumers have ethical concerns: they want the meat, poultry, and eggs they purchase to come only from animals that had been treated humanely. Others may want to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Finally, there's growing public interest in knowing the country of origin of produce and other foods. Thus, there is an effort to make traceability more transparent so that everyone in the food chain, possibly even the consumer, can follow the movements of food products and their ingredients.


Traceability becomes especially important when there's a foodborne illness outbreak.  "Once the source of the problem ascertained, the whereabouts of the food causing contamination can be more quickly discovered," Dr. Regenstein explains.j 


Sustainable and Renewable Resources


Two of the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board food scientists supplied brief definitions of "sustainable":


Dr. Regenstein:

"The impact on the planet is minimal and, hopefully, such that future generations will also have access to these resources."


Dr. Catherine Cutter:

"If a resource is sustainable, it's not deleted or permanently damaged; it can be used over and over again."


Another Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board member took on the task of explaining the difference between "sustainable" and "renewable" in the context of the planet:


Food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser:


"Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations." (EPA definition;


 "Renewable (business  "A resource that is practically inexhaustible."


"The difference?  I think that “sustainability” refers to the conditions that make something renewable. And “renewable” refers to something that is perpetually available for use. [Dr. Regenstein points this out: "The growth of plants takes nutrients out of the soil, so one must always replenish. The question is this:  how can this be accomplished?  Can we set up a big enough recycling system so that these nutrients are returned to the soil?]


"It is probably impossible to reach perfect sustainability or renewability, but, for all practical purposes, some systems are both sustainable and renewable. For instance, water is a renewable resource. Unfortunately there are distribution and pollution issues, but as a resource, it is both sustainable and renewable. Water is not disappearing from the earth, and humans can manage it.  The composition of air seems to be a sustainable and renewable resource too. Sunlight is a resource that is practically inexhaustible. [Dr. Regenstein adds this: "Solar energy, the only resource that enters our planet from outside, is the only endlessly renewable input the Earth gets."]


"As far as livestock and animals are concerned, there is plenty of evidence that livestock have been around almost as long as humans, and wild animals even longer. The evidence (in general) suggests that livestock and animals are (or can be) renewable and sustainable where the climate and conditions are favorable.


"Many want to know how long can we keep up with the current growth of agricultural needs for our society. I think this is where “sustainability” comes into play. What can mankind do to sustain the population growth, and how will the ecosystem respond to increased demands? Industry and academia are working on answers. Are some ecosystems currently unsustainable because of localized or global resource depletion (e.g. water, fertilizer, fuel)?  I believe they are. Technology and economics will play an important role in the outcome."



Source(s): "Health Halo Effect" "Functional Food" "Top 10 Functional Food Trends" "Hunger & Poverty Statistics"


Streetwise Chicago "Local advocates decry House food stamp vote," October 2-8, 2013. "A Look Inside Food Deserts"  "Food Desert"


Chicago Tribune "Emanuel's food desert promises fall short," August 28, 2013.


Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science



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