Last Updated on September 17, 2021 by Michael Joseph
There are many different types of food that we consume daily.
This article will categorize these foods into major types and look at notable examples (and lesser-known options) from each group.
Additionally, we’ll look at the common major nutrients typically found in each group.
Table of contents
Although it should really come under ‘dairy,’ there are just so many varieties of cheese with their own unique characteristics to explore.
Cheese is delicious, and it is one of the most versatile foods, featuring in everything from cakes, sandwiches, and cheese platters to pizza, pasta, and burgers.
While most of us have our own favorite, there are literally thousands of different types of cheese from around the world.
Cheese tends to be one of the best dietary sources of calcium, and it is generally a rich source of protein too (1).
- Notable examples: Brie, Cheddar, Cottage cheese, Edam, Gorgonzola, Parmesan
- Lesser-common options: Gammelost, Paneer, Quark, Stilton
- Key nutrients: Calcium, phosphorus, selenium, vitamin A
The most notorious cocoa product—chocolate—is among the very most popular foods in the world.
However, there is a surprising number of different cocoa-based foods available.
These foods range from typical milk and dark chocolate to brewed cocoa, cocoa butter, and even cocoa nibs, fragments of the whole cocoa bean.
Perhaps surprising to some people, cocoa is packed full of essential nutrients and contains particularly high amounts of fiber, magnesium, and various minerals.
There is a list of almost every cocoa product here for more information.
- Notable examples: Chocolate milk, dark chocolate, hot chocolate, milk chocolate
- Lesser-common options: Brewed cocoa, cacao nibs, cocoa butter, ruby chocolate
- Key nutrients: Copper, magnesium, manganese
Condiments are supplementary foods (often sauces or spices) that help to enhance the flavor of foods/meals.
Some of the most common condiments include ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard. That said, the ‘condiments’ classification can include everything from guacamole and red wine vinegar to sweet sauces.
According to recent sales data, mayonnaise is the most popular condiment in the United States, with annual sales worth $2 billion (2).
For more information on condiments, see this list of 34 condiments and their nutritional values.
- Notable examples: Guacamole, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard
- Lesser-common options: Kypolou, muhammara, ssamjang
- Key nutrients: Widely varies, but condiments are often high in sodium from salt
Cooking Oils and Fats
There are dozens of different cooking oils used in kitchens around the world.
Among these, the biggest differences tend to relate to the fatty acid ratio of each one – the amount of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats.
This review of all the different cooking oils lists their precise nutrition facts and a general summary of their properties.
- Notable examples: Butter, coconut oil, olive oil, soybean oil
- Lesser-common options: Macadamia nut oil, red palm oil
- Key nutrients: Vitamin E
Dairy is a wide-ranging food group that features everything from ghee to low-fat milk and protein-rich cheese. Thus, dairy foods can fit into a wide range of diets.
In this regard, dairy can have attributes such as low-fat (skim milk), high-fat (butter), fermented (kefir), and high in protein (whey).
For more on dairy, see this wide range of dairy products.
- Notable examples: Butter, cheese, milk, yogurt
- Lesser-common options: Ayran, clotted cream, skyr, uunijuusto
- Key nutrients: Calcium, phosphorus, selenium, vitamin A
Although many people think of eggs as just one food, there is actually a surprising range of different eggs we can buy.
These eggs include regular chicken eggs, (tiny) quail eggs, and (rather big) turkey eggs. Fish roe, too, is a kind of egg product.
Among the many nutrients they contain, eggs tend to be an excellent source of protein, choline, selenium, and vitamin D.
Find out more here: the nutritional differences between different types of eggs
- Notable examples: Chicken eggs
- Lesser-common options: Goose eggs, turkey eggs
- Key nutrients: Choline, riboflavin (B2), selenium, vitamin D
Fermentation is the centuries-old, traditional approach to preserving food.
Cultures around the world all have their own fermented foods, such as kimchi (Korea), natto (Japan), sauerkraut (Germany), tempeh (Indonesia). These foods can be desirable in both taste characteristics and nutritional properties.
On the nutritional side, recent research has suggested that fermented food consumption may have some benefits.
Many fermented foods around the world are made from soybeans, and there is a list of these foods here.
- Notable examples: Cheese, kimchi, natto, sauerkraut, yogurt
- Lesser-common options: Brem, cheonggukjang, cincalok, douchi,
- Key nutrients: Often a good source of probiotics, but the vitamin and mineral content depends on which food is being fermented.
Flour is mainly used for baking purposes and thickening sauces. Most flours tend to be created from finely pulverized grains, nuts, seeds, or tubers.
Wheat flour is by far the most popular flour in the world, but over recent years, various options have increased in popularity.
Some of the most notable of these include almond flour and coconut flour. However, even flour made from insects—cricket flour—has increased in popularity recently.
See this full guide to all the different flours for more information.
- Notable examples: Almond flour, rice flour, rye flour, wheat flour
- Lesser-common options: Acorn flour, potato flour, tapioca flour
- Key nutrients: Manganese, phosphorus (but mostly depends on variety)
Fruit is popular worldwide, but the types of fruit that grow from place to place depend on the local climate.
For example, fruits like avocados, bananas, mangos, passion fruit, and pineapple can grow in warmer climates.
In contrast, fruits such as apples, pears, peaches, and plums grow in temperate climates, as they require a cold season during the year (11).
Most fruit is a good source of vitamin C, particularly tropical and citrus fruits like lemon, lime, oranges, and mangos.
For more on the nutritional values, see this guide to the different types of fruit.
- Notable examples: Apple, banana, mango, orange, strawberry
- Lesser-common options: Cherimoya, dragon fruit, durian, star fruit
- Key nutrients: Potassium, vitamin C
Most countries tend to have a few staple grains that are a regular part of the average diet.
In much of the Western world, wheat enjoys the most popularity, but oats and rice are also common. In contrast, rice is the staple grain for much of Asia.
Whole grains tend to be associated with health benefits, including lower cancer, cardiovascular, and all-cause mortality (12).
They can also be a rice source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
On the other hand, diets containing excessive amounts of refined grains (such as white bread, flour, white rice) are often associated with negative health effects.
A recent systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that replacing refined grains with whole grains improves various health markers, including blood sugar, cholesterol, and markers of inflammation (13).
For anyone confused between refined and whole grains, here is a list of genuine whole grains alongside their nutritional properties.
- Notable examples: Oats, rice, rye, wheat
- Lesser-common options: Fonio, freekeh, sorghum
- Key nutrients: Magnesium, manganese, phosphorus
Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices can add a lot of flavor to home-cooked foods and thus make a healthier way of eating more enjoyable.
The word ‘herb’ tends to be used to describe leaves of a plant (e.g. basil, rosemary, and thyme), whereas spice refers to other parts of the plant, such as turmeric (root) and cumin (seed).
Herbs and spices are also extremely rich in vitamins, minerals, and various bioactive compounds, such as polyphenols. However, since they are used in relatively small amounts, they don’t contribute a large proportion of essential nutrients to the average diet.
Here are 50 herbs and spices to consider using.
- Notable examples: Basil, cumin, rosemary, turmeric
- Lesser-common options: Grains of paradise, nigella, sumac
- Key nutrients: Variable depending on variety, but usually high in manganese and potassium.
The word ‘legume’ refers to the edible fruit or seeds of species in the Fabaceae family of plants (14).
Some commonly consumed foods within the legume category include chickpeas, edamame, lentils, peas, and soybeans.
Interestingly, legumes can have varying nutritional properties, with some being high in fat and protein (soybeans) and some being very low in fat and high in carbohydrate (adzuki).
For more information, here are the nutritional values for all legumes.
- Notable examples: Chickpeas, lentils, soybeans
- Lesser-common options: Adzuki beans, black-eyed peas, lupin beans
- Key nutrients: Copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus
Meat refers to the flesh of animals used for food.
The most common options in countries like the United Kingdom and the United States include beef, chicken, lamb, and pork.
However, different options that might be considered unusual in these countries enjoy popularity elsewhere, with kangaroo and rabbit being notable examples.
All varieties of meat offer an excellent source of protein and a variety of essential vitamins and minerals. However, observational research has suggested red meat might slightly increase the risk of certain health conditions.
For more on meat, here are the nutritional values for every common variety.
- Notable examples: Beef, chicken, lamb, pork, turkey
- Lesser-common options: Bison, kangaroo, rabbit, venison
- Key nutrients: B vitamins (especially B12), iron, selenium, zinc
Mushrooms are unique in that that they are neither animals nor plants. Instead, they have their very own category – fungi (17).
Around the world, people use mushrooms in various dishes due to their taste-enhancing ‘umami’ properties. Furthermore, they offer a distinctive and broad range of common and lesser-common nutrients for very few calories.
Mushrooms with UV exposure (whether from natural sunlight or UV lights) are also a significant source of vitamin D (18).
There are many different mushrooms with their own unique taste characteristics: here are some of the most common edible mushrooms.
- Notable examples: Button mushrooms, cremini, enoki, portobello, shiitake
- Lesser-common options: Lion’s mane, morel, matsutake
- Key nutrients: B vitamins, manganese, phosphorus
Not all nuts are botanically true tree nuts. For instance: almonds and pine nuts are technically seeds, and peanuts are legumes.
However, the foods that we refer to as ‘nuts’ tend to be a rich source of nutrients and phytonutrients. In addition, most nuts are also a significant source of polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Systematic reviews and meta-analyses of the existing evidence demonstrate that nut consumption is strongly associated with reduced all-cause mortality (especially cardiovascular mortality) consistently across multiple long-term observational trials (19, 20, 21).
For more information, see this guide to the nutritional values of the most common nut varieties.
- Notable examples: Almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, walnuts
- Lesser-common options: Baru nuts, hickory nuts, pili nuts
- Key nutrients: Copper, magnesium, manganese, vitamin E
While oily fish belong to the broader ‘seafood’ food group, their intake is recommended by numerous health authorities for their omega-3 content.
In addition to its omega-3 content, oily fish tends to be an excellent source of other important nutrients, including protein, vitamin B12, and selenium.
See this ranking of oily fish with the most omega-3 for more information.
- Notable examples: Herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines, trout
- Lesser-common options: Anchovies, sprats
- Key nutrients: Omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, vitamin B12
While ‘processed foods’ sometimes get a bad rap, the truth is that most foods have been processed somehow.
Cheese is processed, pure tomato paste is processed, and foods like guacamole and peanut butter are processed too.
In this regard, it is worth pointing out that minimally processed foods don’t have the same association with poor health outcomes as ultra-processed foods do.
For instance, the foods on this list of reasonably nutritious processed foods provide a good range of nutrients and are mostly based upon whole foods.
- Notable examples: Cheese, chocolate, peanut butter, tomato paste
- Lesser-common options: Anchovy paste, ginger paste, goose fat
- Key nutrients: Variable depending on the original food source
This umbrella review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses shows that fish consumption is consistently associated with improved health outcomes across a wide range of studies (25).
However, it is not only fish that provides beneficial nutrients: a range of seafood (including shellfish and sea vegetables) does.
Shellfish like crab, lobster, mussels, and oysters provide a broad range of vitamins and minerals alongside protein for very few calories.
Additionally, sea vegetables like the different varieties of seaweed are a rich source of minerals, particularly iodine.
See this list of healthy seafood options for more information.
- Notable examples: Cod, crab, oysters, salmon, seaweed
- Lesser-common options: Conch, eel
- Key nutrients: B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, zinc
Seeds are the reproductive component of plants, and they contain all the nutrients the new plant requires to grow.
For this reason, they also tend to be very nutrient-dense and provide a range of important vitamins and minerals.
In fact, seeds tend to offer a little bit of everything and provide fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and a range of healthy fats.
For more on the different varieties, here’s a guide to all the common types of seeds.
- Notable examples: Chia, sesame, sunflower
- Lesser-common options: Lotus, poppy, watermelon
- Key nutrients: Copper, magnesium, manganese, selenium, vitamin E
As previously mentioned, there is a difference between ‘processed’ and ‘ultra-processed’ foods. Whereas the former can be as simple as cheese, guacamole, or tomato paste, ultra-processed food contains a wide variety of refined ingredients.
According to the NOVA food classification system, ultra-processed foods are “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, typically created by series of industrial techniques and processes (hence ‘ultra-processed’)” (26).
These food products are typically made by multi-national food corporations and include packaged foods like potato chips, candy, donuts, etc.
Recent research by Kevin Hall and his team has demonstrated that ultra-processed food consumption may cause weight gain (27).
In this randomized controlled trial, two groups of participants consumed either an unprocessed or ultra-processed diet, with calorie-matched meals that participants were told to consume “as much or as little as desired.” Interestingly, the group consuming the ultra-processed food menu consumed approximately 500 calories more per day, which led to weight gain.
Thus, it would seem a good idea to base a healthy diet around whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible.
- Notable examples: Cheetos, Mars confectionary, donuts
- Key nutrients: Variable, but generally not a healthy source of nutrients.
For more information, see this guide to ultra-processed foods and some reasons why we should limit our intake.
There are hundreds of different vegetable varieties to explore, so there should be something for everyone regarding taste preference.
The most common vegetables include foods like broccoli, cabbage, carrots, onions, and potatoes.
Nutritionally, the vitamin and mineral content of vegetables varies somewhat depending on the specific variety. However, most vegetables offer a good source of fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, and potassium for few calories.
Here are the nutritional values for 56 different types of vegetables.
- Notable examples: Cabbage, carrots, kale, potatoes
- Lesser-common options: Artichoke, kohlrabi
- Key nutrients: Copper, magnesium, manganese, selenium, vitamin E
As shown in this guide, there are numerous different foods that we can consume as part of our diet.
Almost all of these foods have their own unique nutrients and potential pros and cons.
However, no matter what diet someone prefers, striving to get a range of nutrients from whole foods (and limiting ultra-processed options) is the key.
For more food articles, see this guide to 50 nutritious food choices.