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Sushi, Frozen Yogurt, Granola Divide Americans and Nutritionists on "Healthy" Labels

Photo: Jennifer Causey

A recent New York Times survey revealed Americans and nutritionists have a wide range of opinions about what foods are "healthy," and they don't always agree. In fact, Americans give healthy halos to a few foods that nutritionists say deserve a thumbs down.

What exactly is healthy? And what foods fall into that category? It can be a tough call to make, especially if you've had little to no nutritional education. Even the FDA isn't exactly sure what "healthy" means any more and is re-evaluating its use of the term. Some of the foods many people would consider part of a balanced diet (looking at you, granola), most nutrition professionals would turn their nose up at. 

Earlier this week, the New York Times released a survey of the public's perception on the healthiness of certain foods. More than 600 nutritionists from the American Society for Nutrition and 2000 Americans were surveyed to see exactly where health professionals and regular folks agreed and disagreed on the concept of "healthy."

Several obvious choices popped up in both groups: cookies, soda, and French fries were deemed unhealthy, while apples, oatmeal, and kale were among the top healthy choices.

But 71 percent of Americans thought granola bars were a healthy food choice, while only 28 percent of nutritionists did. Similar gaps in numbers, with Americans favoring food items falsely perceived as healthy, were seen for coconut oil, frozen yogurt, orange juice, and American cheese. The discrepancies of opinion on certain foods revealed that many Americans have a long way to go before we have a sound concept of healthy.

"Don't be fooled by loud labels and tag lines," says Cooking Light Nutrition Editor Sidney Fry, MS, RD. "Often the healthiest foods aren't even labeled as healthy. They're just simple, unassuming, and tasty."

Surprisingly, a large category of nutritionist-approved foods left many Americans scratching their heads. Quinoa, sushi, and tofu were just a few of the foods the individuals in the survey couldn't place on the healthiness scale. This lack of clarity might be due to the foods' obscurity in the traditional American diet. It could also be caused by constantly changing trends and meaningless labels like "superfoods."

In the end, Fry says, it's all about paying attention to ingredient lists and choosing quality over quantity. "There are so many healthy and unhealthy versions of all of these things," she says. "Sushi by definition is 'a Japanese dish consisting of small balls or rolls of vinegar-flavored cold cooked rice served with a garnish of raw fish, veggies, and egg.'  By definition then yes, I'd say it's healthy. Deep fried, drizzled in mayo-based sauce, and dunked in sodium-laden soy sauce? Not so healthy."