A New Study Says We Are All Officially Confused About What Nutritious Food Looks Like

You’re looking to shed a few pounds for Speedo season, so what do you do? You go Paleo, replacing your normal cream-and-sugar a.m. coffee routine with coconut oil and butter. It’s healthy, right? And it’ll get you through the morning, or at least, that’s what your cubical-mate says.

Only, it doesn’t. So at 11 a.m., desperately in need of some actual carbs, you cave and have a serving of granola, which you make sure to mix into a bowl of yogurt. Because, protein! Never mind the fact that that yogurt is frozen. It’s good for you. That’s what the lady running the shop said as she urged you to try a sample of her latest flavor, The Way the Cookie Crumbles. And would she lie?

Well, no. But she probably doesn’t know what’s best for you. And, according to a new report out from the New York Times, in conjunction with polling group the Morning Consult, you probably don’t either.

For the report, the Morning Consult asked hundreds of nutritionists, as well as a “representative sample of the American electorate” to give their opinion of the healthiness or unhealthiness of approximately 50 different food items — everything from kale and olive oil to chocolate chip cookies and french fries. Yes, there were the soft balls — no one really considered diet soda to be healthy — but the surprising results came with the more ambiguous foods, including steak, whole milk, and popcorn.

Because, as it turns out, not even nutritionists have a firm grasp on what’s healthy and what’s not.

“Twenty years ago, I think we knew about 10 percent of what we need to know” Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, told the Times. “And now we know about 40 or 50 percent.”

The top foods that baffled the nutritionists? Popcorn, with a 61 percent healthy rating from nutritionists (versus 52 percent from the public); pork chops, with 59 percent (versus 52 percent); whole milk, with 63 percent (versus 59 percent); steak, with 60 percent (versus 63 percent); and cheddar cheese, with 57 percent (versus a very close 56 percent from the public).

One speculation for the middling numbers: a lot of the contentious foods are high in fat. Every day we see new research that de-villainizes saturated fat after years of advice to the contrary. That’s got to be baffling, even for nutritionists. (And then there’s popcorn. Somehow we’re all just confused on the issue of popcorn for no reason.)

There are, of course, the foods nutritionists know to be unhealthy, but that the general public is still deceiving itself about. On that list: granola bars, with a 28 percent healthy rating from nutritionists (versus a whopping 71 percent from the public); coconut oil, with 37 percent (versus 72 percent); frozen yogurt, with 32 percent (versus 66 percent); granola, with 47 percent (versus 80 percent); SlimFast, with 21 percent (versus 47 percent); orange juice, with 62 percent (versus 78 percent); and American cheese, of all things, with 24 percent (versus 39 percent — the majority of us aren’t duped by its patriotic name).

Notice anything about the majority of those foods? Yeah, that’s right. The sugar content in things like frozen yogurt, SlimFast, and granola, is pretty darn high. And these days, we’re all starting to realize (slowly, because we sure don’t like to admit it) that sugar, not fat, could have been the cause of our health problems all along.

Finally, on the flip side are the foods nutritionists tout as healthy, but that the general public just haven’t caught on to yet. For example, many of us are still suspicious of quinoa, which nutritionists rated as healthy 89 percent of the time (versus 58 percent from the general public). Also on the list: tofu, with 85 percent (versus 57 percent); sushi, with 75 percent (versus 49 percent); hummus, with 90 percent (versus 66 percent); wine, with 70 percent (versus 52 percent); and shrimp, with 85 percent (versus 69 percent).

Surprised? The Times speculates that the low non-nutritionist ratings of foods like quinoa and hummus come from the fact that they’re fairly new — and unfamiliar — to the American public. As for shrimp and wine, they’re both foods that have received mixed press coverage. Shrimp, for example, was once maligned for being high in cholesterol, while we all know that wine isn’t great when it’s consumed in large quantities.

So if we’re all confused, what are we supposed to do? Well, you could resort to eating only the food items everyone generally agrees on — oranges, apples, oatmeal, chicken, spinach, and kale, among others. Or you could just stop worrying so much and just do the best you can. A Pop Tart or two probably isn’t going to kill you in the long run. Even if that Pop Tart is filled with artificial maple bacon deliciousness.