What Exactly Is Junk Food?   4 comments

While developing goals for the next six months in the shadow of my junk food weekend, I contemplated making one of the goals to completely eliminate junk food from my regular life. That made me wonder, though, “what is junk food, specifically?”

The dictionary defines “junk food” as food that is high in calories and low in nutritional value, which is a really vague definition. Wikipedia and a variety of blogs define junk food as chips, candy, gum, “most sweet desserts”, fried fast food, and sodas. But it seems to me that there is some gray in even the more specific description. So at what point does something qualify as “junk food?” Please add your two cents in the comments. I’m guessing the definition is slightly different person-to-person.

The first things that come to my mind when I think “junk food” are chips and candy. Undoubtably all chips are junk, even the ones made from bananas, apples, or beets, because they are slivered, fried, and salted. The salt and oil content outweighs any nutritional value inherent in the chip-ed vegetable/fruit. Things get a little more fuzzy to me with candy. Most broadly marketed candy is pretty much flavored sugar, and would indisputably be considered junk. But I always here people lament that they can’t give up their chocolate, and I’m not sure where that really falls. In my opinion Hersey’s is junk, but what about a small square of a 70% or 82% cocoa fair trade chocolate bar that contains approximately one teaspoon of sugar in the entire bar? To me the square isn’t junk because it is low in sugar and not high fat, but am I justifying a quasi-daily chocolate habit? If one square is ok, is half a bar ok or does that cross the line? And then there’s the issue of substitute candy: dried fruit. Hand me a bag of dried tart cherries, cranberries, blueberries, and strawberries, and I’m as happy as any kid in a candy shop. But those dried fruits are LOADED with sugar, and should probably be categorized as junk food when eaten alone, despite the fact that they are fruit and therefor contain at least some nutrients. I did buy dried tart cherries for my junk food weekend because they ARE my candy. Where does ice cream fit in, too? It is after all frozen sugared fat. Even sorbet and sherbet, marketed as healthy because they are low fat, contain lots of sugar.

The next thing that comes to my mind are cookies. And again I may be making excuses for myself. Oreos: junk, circus animals: junk, Fig Newtons: ?, graham crackers: ok?, home-baked Toll House cookies: junk? home-baked oatmeal cookies loaded with nuts and dried fruit: ok? Every Christmas when my mom makes that last item in the list, the cookie recipe she tweeked for me when I was in college, I refer to them as “breakfast cookies” and feel absolutely no guilt eating them any time of day. I gave them an extra boost when I made them this year with 100% whole wheat flour instead of white flour. But while those cookies are relatively low in sugar and relatively high in health ingredients, they are still based on wheat flour. White wheat flour might as well be considered sugar since it converts to sugar really quickly during digestion. So if cookies that are high in sugar and white flour are junk, what about scones and cakes, or crackers that are high in salt and white flour? I would say so, especially after the experience of overcoming my personal cracker addiction and switching to vegetable snacks a couple of years ago. Crackers just have no real nutritional value by themselves (other than the fortified flour). But what about bread? Is there a difference between crackers and bread? While I would consider Wonder Bread to be junk, a good loaf of pugliese is one of my weaknesses, and I’m loathe to call it junk.

So my personal summary list of junk food is chips and other fried snack foods, candy (except for low-sweetening dark chocolate), cookies (with a few exceptions), store-bought white flour scones, crackers, granola bars, dried fruit that has added sugar (so excludes raisins, apricots, and peaches), sodas, french fries not part of a meal, ice cream beyond one small scoop, and any other packaged food that contains ingredients that I can’t picture in my mind. That’s a challenge.

Posted February 24, 2011 by mayakey in food, goals

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4 responses to “What Exactly Is Junk Food?

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  1. To me everything that is not pure, fresh or sauteed (not fried) fruits, vegetables, whole grain, fish, legumes, meat is a junk food.
    Anything that is fried in lots of oil and breaded is a junk food.
    If i eat something and then ask myself could have I made it healthier, and if the answer is yes then I ate junk food πŸ™‚
    I do admit I’m a purist when it comes to food, very strict. It doesn’t mean I don’t eat certain types of “junk foods” but I definitely don’t foll myself into thinking it’s not what it is.
    I eat sweets in moderation and after dinner only and that’s because i choose sweets as my only “junk food”.
    Most things packaged and processed are junk foods in my mind. I only eat what I cook myself, unless it’s completely organic, has no added sugars and I’ve studied the ingredients list and am happy with it.

    So to list them: anything fried in lots of oil, anything breaded, anything made out of white flour, anything with added sugar, anything processed and packaged, deli and processed meats, like sausage, hot dogs, salami (since the bad outweighs the good), any drinks besides decaf tea, water and organic no sugar added juices, ice cream of course.

    • I was headed in the direction of your list (except for sausage, which is my carcinogen of choice), but in the context of trying to eliminate junk food I decided it was not doable. Maybe there should be junk food and junk food-lite, which includes the sweets in moderation, bread, pasta, and things like that.

      • Well, technically sweets in moderation is still junk food..but in moderation. Junk food is junk food, it doesn’t mean we can’t ever have it. It means that we can pick and choose what to enjoy and do a little bit of it.
        Refined grains are still a nutritional zero compared to whole grains, but i doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy those once in a while. I think we just have to pick the foods that are worth it and indulge in those sometimes, but not waste our nutritional brownie points on stuff we don’t really like that much.

  2. line 4 *fool myself* πŸ™‚

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