You may have seen common culinary nutrition terms like macronutrients or antioxidants bandied about in books, podcasts, websites and articles, or splashed onto food labels, and wondered what they mean. Whether you have a personal interest in nutrition, have an existing food or health business, or want to launch a new food-related career, getting to know the common lingo is extremely helpful and can empower you to make informed decisions about what to eat.
Let’s delve into some basic culinary nutrition terminology!
guide to basic culinary nutrition terms
Macronutrients are the nutrients your body needs in large amounts. The three primary macronutrients are carbohydrates, fat and protein (more on those below).
Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals your body needs in small amounts. While you don’t need a boatload of them, micronutrients play many key roles in our health.
Carbohydrates are a macronutrient that is one of our main sources of fuel. Carbohydrates, or carbs, are synthesized in plant-based foods and are comprised of sugars.
Simple Sugars: Monosaccharides (one sugar molecule)
When we put sugar molecules together, we get:
Disaccharides (two sugar molecules)
Polysaccharides (many sugar molecules)
These are long chains of sugars that form complex carbohydrates such as:
- gums and mucilage
Are Carbs Good or Bad?
It depends on the type of carbohydrate and what you’re consuming along with it. Highly refined carbohydrates like white sugar, refined flours, white rice, white bread, juice, baked goods and pasta are digested and absorbed quickly, leading to spikes in blood sugar levels. Complex carbohydrates such as vegetables, fruits, beans, and gluten-free whole grains take longer for us to break down into those smaller sugars, leading to sustained energy levels and balanced blood sugar throughout the day.
Fibre (or fiber, if you’re not headquartered in Canada like we are) are carbohydrates that we can’t fully digest. Fibre lends structure to plant-based foods and is essential to digestion, absorption, and elimination. It helps us feel more full and slows food down as it passes through our digestive tract so we can break down nutrients. It also behaves like a sponge in the colon, grabbing onto excess hormones, carcinogens, or toxins we need to excrete from our bodies.
Fibre comes in two forms:
- Soluble: This can be partially broken down and fermented along our digestive tract, leading to the production of beneficial bacteria and nutrients like short-chain fatty acids. Soluble fibre can dissolve in water, creating a gel that helps attract water to the gut so we can pass food on through.
- Insoluble: This type of fibre cannot be digested at all. It gives bulk to our stool and gives our digestive tract muscles something to work against, helping to move poop through and out our colon.
Refined sugars are derived from plants like sugar cane, sugar beets, and corn. During the manufacturing process, those plants are completely stripped of their nutrients, leaving us with a product that is void of any health benefits, and what’s more, our body needs to use its precious resources to metabolize them.
Natural sweeteners are in their natural state (or very close to it, with minimal alteration or processing) and this leaves them with nutrients that can help support a more healthful dessert habit.
Any sweetener – whether refined or natural – is going to raise blood sugar levels. However, natural sweeteners contain vitamins, minerals, enzymes and antioxidants, as opposed to refined sweeteners that will only deplete us. Also, when natural sweeteners are paired with other nutrient-dense ingredients such as protein, fat and fibre, you’ll end up with a healthier treat overall.
If your curiosity is piqued, we’re just scratching the surface here! We dive much deeper into these terms, and much more in the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program, an in-depth professional certification program in culinary nutrition that offers practical, everyday, natural cooking skills as well as a deeper exploration into the therapeutic properties of the foods we eat and how we prepare them.
Protein is a macronutrient and it’s made up of different chains of smaller amino acids, like beads on a necklace. There are 20 amino acids in our bodies. During digestion, we break down proteins into their amino acids and use them for many essential functions throughout the body. Proteins are important for:
Essential Amino Acids
Essential amino acids are ones we cannot make ourselves and must get through our diet. There are nine essential amino acids we can obtain from food; the rest we can create.
We can source protein from animal and plant-based foods. Animal sources are complete proteins, meaning they have all of the essential amino acids. Some plant-based foods are complete proteins (such as hemp seeds, quinoa and soy) while many others are not.
Fat is our last macronutrient and it’s a very concentrated source of calories and nutrients. Fats have been highly vilified in our culture but are actually crucial for:
- energy levels
- the nervous system
- hormone production
- stability of cell membranes
- healthy skin
We’ve outlined the different types of fats in more detail in this post about cooking oils if you’d like to learn more.
Essential Fatty Acids
As with protein, there are a few fats that we cannot make and have to consume through our diet. Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats are essential.
Cholesterol is a type of fat that helps us produce Vitamin D, hormones and bile acids for digestion, and is part of our cell membrane’s structure. Cholesterol is only found in animal foods; however, contrary to popular belief most of our cholesterol is formed in the body rather than eaten through diet.
Vitamins are compounds that we need in smaller amounts for a large variety of functions in the body, and the majority of vitamins we need come from food. We go into great detail about what each vitamin does in the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program.
Vitamins can be divided into two main categories:
- Fat soluble vitamins: These vitamins frequently live in fat tissue and require a source of fat in order to best be absorbed. Fat soluble vitamins can be stored in the body for longer periods of time.
- Water soluble vitamins: These vitamins dissolve in water, and water helps us absorb them. Water soluble vitamins are not stored for a long time, so we need to be eating foods with them regularly.
Minerals are elements that we need in smaller amounts, and they have a multitude of functions and health effects. We go into great detail about what each mineral does in the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program.
Minerals can be divided into two main categories:
- Macrominerals: These are the minerals that we need in larger amounts (often in milligrams), such as calcium and magnesium.
- Microminerals: These are minerals we need in smaller amounts (smaller amounts of milligrams and often micrograms), such as zinc and copper.
Antioxidants are powerful compounds that help to protect our bodies from damage and guard us from many chronic diseases. You can find antioxidants in many foods.
Learn More: Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Lifestyle Guide
Phytonutrient is an umbrella term for thousands of compounds in plants that are beneficial and help promote good health. Most phytonutrients have a combination of anti-inflammatory, immune-supportive, antioxidant, cardioprotective, and anti-cancer properties.
Learn More: Guide to Phytonutrients and Where to Find Them
We hope that this guide to culinary nutrition terms is a helpful primer that will inspire your eating choices! If you’d like to dive deeper into these culinary nutrition terms and concepts, consider joining us for the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program where we’ll teach you all about the therapeutic properties of foods and how to create delicious, health-supportive recipes.
Academy of Culinary Nutrition