Junk food is a pejorative term for food containing high levels of calories from sugar or fat with little protein, vitamins or minerals (see dietary elements). Use of the term implies that a particular food has little "nutritional value" and contains excessive fat, sugar, salt, and calories.
Despite being labeled as "junk," such foods usually do not pose any immediate health concerns and are generally safe when integrated into a well balanced diet. However, concerns about the negative health effects resulting from the consumption of a "junk food"-heavy diet have resulted in public health awareness campaigns, and restrictions on advertising and sale in several countries.
Definition of "junk food"
Andrew F. Smith, in his book, Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food defines junk food as "those commercial products, including candy, bakery goods, ice cream, salty snacks, and soft drinks, which have little or no nutritional value but do have plenty of calories, salt, and fats. While not all fast foods are junk foods, most are. Fast foods are ready-to-eat foods served promptly after ordering. Some fast foods are high in calories and low in nutritional value, while other fast foods, such as salads, may be low in calories and high in nutritional value."
Foods commonly considered junk foods include salted snack foods, gum, candy, sweet desserts, fried fast food, and sugary carbonated beverages. Many foods such as hamburgers, pizza, and tacos can be considered either healthy or junk food depending on their ingredients and preparation methods. The more highly processed items usually fall under the junk food category, including breakfast cereals that are mostly sugar or high-fructose corn syrup and white flour or milled corn.
What is and is not junk food can also depend on a person's class and social status, with wealthier people tending to have a broader definition, and lower-income consumers seeing fewer foods as junk food. Especially in the case of ethnic foods, a classification as "junk food" could be perceived as rather offensive, given that such foods may have been prepared and consumed for centuries and may contain healthy ingredients. In the book, Panic Nation: Unpicking the Myths We're Told About Food and Health, a complementary point is argued: food is food, and if there is no nutritional value, then it isn't a food of any type, "junk" or otherwise. Co-editor Vincent Marks explains, "To label a food as 'junk' is just another way of saying, 'I disapprove of it.' There are bad diets - that is, bad mixtures and quantities of food - but there are no 'bad foods' except those that have become bad through contamination or deterioration."
The term junk food dates back to the early 1950s, although it has been reported that it was coined in 1972 by Michael F. Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. In 1952, it appeared in a headline in the Lima, Ohio, News, "Candy, Cake, 'Junk Foods' Cause Serious Malnutrition"; in 1948, a headline in the Ogden, Utah, Standard-Examiner came close with, "Dr. Brady’s Health Column: More Junk Than Food."
Junk food in its various forms is extremely popular, and an integral part of modern popular culture. In the US, annual fast food sales are in the area of $160 billion, compared to supermarket sales of $620 billion (a figure which also includes junk food in the form of convenience foods, snack foods, and candy). In 1976, "Junk Food Junkie," the tale of a junk food addict who pretends to follow a healthy diet by day, while at night he clandestinely gorges on Hostess Twinkies and Fritos corn chips, McDonalds and KFC, became a Top 10 pop hit in the US. Thirty-six years later, Time placed the Twinkie at #1 in its "Top 10 Iconic Junk Foods" special feature: "Not only...a mainstay on our supermarket shelves and in our bellies, they've been a staple in our popular culture and, above all, in our hearts. Often criticized for its lack of any nutritional value whatsoever, the Twinkie has managed to persevere as a cultural and gastronomical icon."
The excess fat, carbohydrates, and processed sugar found in junk food contributes to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weight gain, and many other chronic health conditions. A study by Paul Johnson and Paul Kenny at the Scripps Research Institute in 2008 suggested that junk food consumption alters brain activity in a manner similar to addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin. After many weeks with unlimited access to junk food, the pleasure centers of rat brains became desensitized, requiring more food for pleasure. After the junk food was taken away and replaced with a healthy diet, the rats starved for two weeks instead of eating nutritious fare. A 2007 British Journal of Nutrition study found that female rats who eat junk food during pregnancy increased the likelihood of unhealthy eating habits in their offspring.
Anti-junk food measures
A number of countries have adopted, or are considering, various forms of legislated action to curb junk food consumption. In 2014, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Anand Grover, released his report, "Unhealthy foods, non-communicable diseases and the right to health,” and called for governments to "take measures, such as developing food and nutrition guidelines for healthy diets, regulating marketing and advertising of junk food, adopting consumer-friendly labelling of food products, and establishing accountability mechanisms for violations of the right to health."
In an attempt to reduce junk food consumption through price control, forms of Pigovian taxation have been implemented. Targeting saturated fat consumption, Denmark introduced the world's first fat-food tax in October, 2011, by imposing a surcharge on all foods, including those made from natural ingredients, that contain more than 2.3 percent saturated fat, an unpopular measure that lasted a little over a year. Hungary has also imposed a tax on packaged foods that contain unhealthy concentrations, such as beverages containing more than 20 mg of caffeine per 100 ml. Norway taxes refined sugar, and Mexico has various excises on unhealthy food.
Junk food advertising to children is a contentious issue. In "The Impact of Advertising on Childhood Obesity," the American Psychological Association reports: "Research has found strong associations between increases in advertising for non-nutritious foods and rates of childhood obesity." In the UK, efforts to increasingly limit or eliminate advertising of foods high in sugar, salt or fat at any time when children may be viewing are ongoing.
- Comfort food
- Fast Food
- Glutamic acid (flavor), common flavoring compounds and their synthetic versions, which may be added to some processed foods, to boost their savoriness
- Health food, foods that tend to be nutrient rich, and may be eaten for their potential benefits to health
- List of food additives
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