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What is healthy? Survey reveals huge gap in what public, nutritionists think is healthy

Thursday 6 July, 2017

Coconut oil, gluten-free cakes, orange juice, frozen yoghurt and muesli bars - they're marketed as good for us, but are they really healthy?

A new survey by LiveLighter has revealed some eye-opening differences between what members of the public and a sample of nutrition experts think is healthy.

LiveLighter asked more than 1,000 Victorian adults and more than 100 dietitians and public health nutritionists to label a list of foods and drinks as healthy or not.

Campaign Manager Alison McAleese said items that are heavily promoted as healthy, like coconut oil, revealed the biggest knowledge gap between the experts and members of the public.

"Not surprisingly, products like coconut oil, gluten-free cakes, orange juice, muesli bars and frozen yoghurt - which are heavily marketed as good for us - were seen as healthy by a much higher proportion of the public than nutritionists surveyed," Ms McAleese said. 


Seventy-five percent of Victorian adults surveyed said coconut oil was ‘healthy', while 85 per cent of the experts disagreed. Ms McAleese said this highlights the powerful influence that food marketing has on what the general public see as healthy.

"Just a few years ago, few people would have heard of coconut oil, let alone know where to buy it or what to do with it. Now it's frequently sold as a health product which in reality is very high in saturated fat and should not be consumed regularly as part of a healthy diet," Ms McAleese said.

At the other end of the scale, a greater percentage of nutritionists surveyed listed the following as healthy: 

Table 2 

While this will no doubt be welcome news for the public, Ms McAleese said it's not a free pass to eat a giant tub of buttery popcorn or order a large serve of creamy pasta from a restaurant.

"When nutritionists say popcorn is healthy, they're most likely thinking of a typical serve of air-popped popcorn, maybe with a sprinkle of herbs or spices - not the salty, buttery variety sold in enormous buckets at the movies," Ms McAleese said.

"The same applies for nutritionists' attitudes towards pasta, peanut butter and jacket potatoes. In their original state these foods are good for us. It's when other ingredients like, cream, butter, processed meats and salt are added that they become less healthy."

Heart Foundation Victoria's Healthy Living Manager Roni Beauchamp said the findings reinforce the importance of checking the credibility of health and nutrition information to make sure people have the full story of what they're purchasing.

"We know that if given the option, people will often select healthier food choices, but it is this very choice that can be taken advantage of by misleading or confusing health messaging," Ms Beauchamp said.

"People have a desire for practical information on health and nutrition so they can make confident, informed decisions, but to allow this, information should be both accessible and accurate.

"If you're looking for reliable information on diet, nutrition or health, check who is providing the information and how they make sure it's accurate. You can also go to the LiveLighter website, visit an accredited practising dietician or nutritionist, or speak to your local GP or health professional."  


About the survey

LiveLighter asked 1,097 Victorian adults aged 18-64 years and 134 Victorian nutrition experts (nutritionists and accredited practicing dietitians) to label 57 foods and drinks as healthy or unhealthy in an online survey. The research was conducted between March and April 2017.

About LiveLighter

Delivered by the Cancer Council Victoria and Heart Foundation, LiveLighter is a public health education campaign which encourages Victorians to lead healthier lives by changing what they eat and drink, and being more active. For more healthy tips, recipes and advice visit