How to Make a Nutritionist’s Word Salad a Little More Digestible

Here’s a quick guide to make the “nutrition language” a little easier to understand.

| 19 Apr 2024 | 01:15

Every profession has its own verbal shorthand. Cops abbreviate unknown suspects to “perps” short for “perpetrators.” Sportswriters and baseball players generally say “RBIs” instead of its long form version, “runs batted in.” Distillers put ABV on their labels instead of “alcohol by volume.” Before computers made instant corrections to first draft articles the norm, an old school newspaper editor might write “stet” on copy when they had second thoughts about an edit instead of “Oops. I crossed that out by mistake.”

Nutritionists are no exception. They also talk and write in shorthand. There’s the easy stuff like RDA, short for recommended dietary allowance, but also tongue twisters such as hypercholesteremia instead of “higher than recommended amount of cholesterol in the blood.”

Like all science lingo, nutrition-speak leans heavily on prefixes (such as hyper) and suffixes (such as emia). For example, the Latin word for milk is lactis. Add the suffix ose and you get lactose, i.e. milk sugar. Add ase and you get lactase, the enzyme that your body uses to digest lactose.

Nutritionists also play the numbers game. Mono means one. If you put it in front of sachar ( the root of the Greek word for sugar) the result is monosaccharide, the term used to describe a sugar molecule with one group of atoms. Double that to di, meaning two, and the sugar has two groups of atoms. Step up to poly and bingo! a sugar with lots and lots of atoms. Ditto for fats which are characterized by the number of hydrogen atoms they carry. A monounsaturated fatty acid is missing hydrogen atoms at one spot; a polyunsaturated fatty acid is missing hydrogen atoms all over the place.

By the way, hydrogen is not only the most abundant element in the universe, it’s also a good example of why you must check every letter in a nutrition word to ferret out its true meaning. For example, the prefix hydra means water; hydrating something means adding water. Change the last A to an O and you get hydrogenate which means to add hydrogen).

Clearly, putting nutrition words together is not as regulated a process as, say, putting up a new skyscraper under Mayor Adams’ New York City of Yes proposal now making its way through the City Council the state capitol in Albany. In fact, nutritionists can pile on so many syllables that the finished word looks like a tower with terraces sprouting in all directions.

The best (or worst ) example may well be the 189,819-letter word ‘Methionylthreonylthreonylglutaminylarginyl...isoleucine’ (those dots are deliberate because to list every syllable in this word would take up an entire page). The freight-train-long word defines titin, the very large protein in muscle tissue. One hardy man is said to have been recorded spending more than three hours to pronounce what is supposedly the longest word in the English language.

Meanwhile, back here in the real world of nutrition speak when the going gets tough, the tough get going by zipping over to Amazon for a guide such as British nutritional biochemist David A. Bender’s A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition (3 ed.) or the classic Stedman’s Medical Dictionary which is conveniently also available online. For beginners, offers an alphabetical list of list of 41 essential nutrition terms from antioxidants to zinc with stops in between for subjects such as juicing and keto diets. Finally, to put it all together, USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center (FNIC) serves up 36 tables listing what must be every single food available on planet earth at

And all spelled correctly.