'Healthy' foods have most of us confused, survey finds

— Determining what exactly is a "healthy" food has us all scratching our heads.

A new survey suggests that most Americans are confused about what counts as a healthy food choice.

About eight in 10 survey respondents said they have found conflicting information about what foods to eat and what foods to avoid -- and more than half of them said the conflicting information has them second-guessing the choices they make, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation's annual Food and Health survey, which was released Tuesday.

"I wasn't that surprised to see that 78% reported that they encountered conflicting information, but our follow-up question to that had, I think, a really interesting data point in it, and that was that about half -- so around 56% -- say that this conflicting information causes them to doubt the choices that they're making," said Liz Sanders, director of research and partnerships at the foundation and a co-author of the survey.

"I think that shows that for at least half of our respondents, this conflicting information was leading to some doubt that made it harder to sort through all the conflicting information," she said. "Americans rely on many different sources for their information when it comes to what foods to eat and what foods to avoid. Not all of these sources are really highly trusted, and it is likely that these sources share inconsistent information."

What America thinks is 'healthy'

The survey involved 1,002 American adults, who completed it online in March. Nearly 60% of respondents ranked being "high in healthy components or nutrients" as one of the top three factors for a "healthy" food.

Slightly more than half of respondents ranked "free from artificial ingredients, preservatives or additives" among the top three factors, and nearly 50% ranked "part of an important food group that I need to build a healthy eating style" among the top three factors.

Factors such as "organic" and "non-GMO," or genetically modified, were less likely to be ranked.

The researchers found that there appeared to be much confusion about what eating habits are healthy and what aren't. Many respondents said they turn to their friends and family for guidance on food choices, even though they see dietitians and health care professionals as the most trusted sources for guidance.

"Trusted nutrition information is hard to find, and the public is inundated with conflicting messages, including from dubious sources," said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition and Medicine in Boston, who was not involved in the new survey.

"Looking at the survey results, it's positive that the public recognizes the importance of foods being high in healthy components, nutrients, and part of an important food group and correctly pay less attention to criteria like GMO or organic," he said.

When considering the healthfulness of individual specific components and ingredients, most survey respondents placed vitamin D, fiber and whole grains at the top of the list and saturated fats at the bottom.

When it comes to unsaturated fats, an age gap emerged in who found those fats to be "healthy." About 50% of survey respondents 65 and older called unsaturated fats healthy, whereas just 33% of those 18 to 34 did.