Nutrition Definitions You Should Know

by Charles Platkin, PhD

All you have to do is turn on the TV or radio or open up almost any newspaper or magazine, and you’ll run smack into one of these terms. And, yes, you might kind of know what they mean, but not exactly. The following are just a few of the many definitions worth knowing:

Functional Foods
“A nutrient or a that may provide additional benefits beyond basic nutrition — for example, yogurt with added bacteria,” says Fran Grossman, M.S., R.D., a nutritionist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. “Nearly all whole foods are ‘functional’ in some way. A functional food is not necessarily a healthy one, so make sure to read the fine print,” advises Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D., an assistant professor at University of North Carolina¬Asheville. “For example, the egg industry describes eggs as a functional food, yet whole eggs are very high in cholesterol and should be limited in a healthy diet.”

High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
HFCS is regular corn syrup that has been treated with glucose isomerase, an enzyme that converts glucose into fructose. The conversion process is attractive for two reasons. The first is that fructose is much sweeter than glucose, so once converted, the same amount drastically increases the overall sweetness of the food. The second reason is that fructose is more soluble at low temperatures, so more can be concentrated per unit of weight.

“The final product is a combination of glucose and fructose, usually either 42 percent fructose or 55 percent fructose with the rest mostly glucose,” says Joanne R. Lupton, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at Texas A&M University. The 55 percent HFCS is often used to sweeten soft drinks, and the 42 percent HFCS is used to sweeten baked goods. “Both of these concentrations of HFCS are ‘high’ as compared to corn syrup (which has no fructose). However, when people discuss HFCS they usually compare it to sucrose (ordinary table sugar). Sucrose is 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose, so HFCS is NOT high with respect to sucrose,” adds Lupton.

Some experts believe that the higher proportion of fructose to glucose creates unique harm. “It is easier for fructose to be made into fat than for glucose to be made into fat. Additionally, there is relatively strong literature showing negative consequences of fructose compared to glucose with respect to raising fatty substances in the blood,” says Lupton.

It’s also been suggested that the rise in obesity in the United States is related to the rise in HFCS consumption. “However, most evidence suggests that the metabolic effects of sucrose and HFCS are pretty similar. What makes HFCS such a hazard is that corn growth is highly subsidized in the U.S., so HFCS is very inexpensive — and thus a tempting additive to many foods,” says David L. Katz, M.D., associate professor of public health and director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine and author of The Flavor Point Diet (Rodale, 2006). Therefore, it’s been argued that adding HFCS leads to an increased consumption of foods that are less nutrient dense, leading to greater calorie consumption and eventually weight gain.

Nutrient Density
There is no one accepted definition of “nutrient density,” says Dr. Lupton. That said, the overall concept is how much nutrient value you get for each calorie consumed. “Nutrient-dense foods provide high amounts of nutrients at a low calorie cost.” For a food to be considered nutrient dense, it must provide substantial amounts of vitamins and minerals and relatively fewer calories.

As Dr. Katz explains: The opposite of nutrient dense is calorie dense or nutrient dilute — foods that mainly supply calories with relatively few nutrients. These are often referred to as “empty calories” — calories that provide few or no health benefits. Foods that are nutrient dense should provide 50 percent more in nutrients than they cost in calories.

Take sunflower seeds for example. A quarter-cup packs about 200 calories, which doesn’t seem like a Calorie Bargain when you consider that a can of Sprite has only 140 calories and a Hershey’s Kiss has only 25. But that quarter-cup of seeds also provides more than 20 percent of the daily value for folate and vitamin B5 and over 25 percent for phosphorous, tryptophan, copper, magnesium and manganese. Meanwhile, the 200 calories are only about 11 percent of daily calorie needs. So you’re getting twice as many nutrients as calories.

Some foods are almost always nutrient dense: whole grains and whole-grain products, fruits, vegetables and legumes. Remember that a food doesn’t have to be extremely low-fat or low-calorie to be nutrient dense — it just has to counterbalance the calorie count with an exceptional level of nutritional value.

These are the nutrients that we need to consume in relatively large amounts in order to stay healthy. They also provide us with the energy we need to survive. They include carbs, fat and protein, the three nutrients that constitute the majority of our diet.

Macronutrients supply calories, whereas micronutrients do not. As a result, recommendations for macronutrients take calories into consideration and must be balanced against one another, says Lupton. The general recommendation for adults (which varies according to weight) is 45 percent to 65 percent of total daily calories from carbs, 20-35 percent from fat and 10–35 percent from protein.

These are the nutrients in foods that are in quantities too small to see. ” They include vitamins, which are organic compounds our bodies need to function normally, and minerals, which are inorganic compounds our bodies need to function normally.” In addition, “There are some related compounds that have not been placed in either category, such as coenzyme Q10,” says Katz.

Fortified Foods
A food that is “fortified” is used as a vehicle to get under-consumed nutrients into the food supply, says Lupton. Fortification is the process by which nutrients and minerals are added to a food that never had them to begin with. This can serve two purposes: to increase the amount of nutrients in the food and to help our bodies better absorb the natural nutrients that were there originally.

One of the most popular examples is milk fortified with vitamin D. In addition to providing milk drinkers with an extra vitamin, the added ingredient increases the rate at which the body absorbs the calcium naturally found in milk. Some experts suggest that fortified foods should be treated like supplements — only to help you meet nutrient needs you cannot otherwise meet. “Fortified foods should not replace the goal of a balanced, plant-based diet — a plate comprised of at least two-thirds fruits, vegetables, grains and beans — as the crucial step to supply the nutrients and protective phytochemicals we need,” says Karen Collins, M.S., R.D., a nutritionist at the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Enriched Foods
Technically a food can be enriched if it naturally contains important vitamins and minerals but in amounts so low as to fail to provide consumers with any noticeable benefit. Higher levels of these trace components are then added to the food until it becomes a viable source of these nutrients.

However, according to Dr. Lupton, the mostly generally accepted definition of an enriched food is one in which nutrients that were lost in processing have been replaced. For instance, when certain foods, such as grains, are refined, they lose many of the nutrients they had in their original form. Once the food has been processed, manufacturers reintroduce (usually at higher levels) the vitamins and minerals that have been leached. In flour, thiamin, riboflavin, iron and niacin lost in the translation from wheat to white are often added again to the final white flour. This process is technically called “restoration” but appears most often on food labels as “enriched.

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