Junk food

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A poster at Camp Pendleton’s 21-Area Health Promotion Center describes the effects of junk food that many Marines and sailors consume.

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.[1][2][3]

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.[4] 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.[5][6][7]

Definition of "junk food"[edit]

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."[8]

Foods commonly considered junk foods include salted snack foods, gum, candy, sweet desserts, fried fast food, and sugary carbonated beverages.[9] Many foods such as hamburgers, pizza, and tacos can be considered either healthy or junk food depending on their ingredients and preparation methods.[10] The more highly processed items usually fall under the junk food category,[11] including breakfast cereals that are mostly sugar or high-fructose corn syrup and white flour or milled corn.[12]

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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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.[13] 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."[14]

The term junk food dates back to the early 1950s,[15] although it has been reported that it was coined in 1972 by Michael F. Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.[3] 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."[16]


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,[17] compared to supermarket sales of $620 billion[18] (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.[19] 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."[20]

Health effects[edit]

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.[21] 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.[22] 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.[23] 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.[24]

Anti-junk food measures[edit]

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."[25]


See also: Fat tax and Soda tax

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.[26][27][28] 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.[29] Norway taxes refined sugar,[30] and Mexico has various excises on unhealthy food.[31]

Advertising restriction[edit]

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."[32] 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.[33]

Junk food is advertised in sporting events.[34][further explanation needed]

"A high ratio of television ads for junk foods" was a cause of alarm for the McGovern committee in 1977.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "junk food". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved 13 March 2015. 
  2. ^ "junk food". Macmillan Dictionary. Retrieved 13 March 2015. 
  3. ^ a b O'Neill, Brendon (November 30, 2006). "Is this what you call junk food?". BBC News. Retrieved June 29, 2010. 
  4. ^ Magee, Elaine (2007). "Junk-Food Facts". WebMD. Retrieved 13 March 2015. 
  5. ^ "Food Marketing to Kids". Public Health Law Center (William Mitchell College of Law). 2010. Retrieved 13 March 2015. 
  6. ^ "Protecting children from the harmful effects of food and drink marketing". World Health Organization. September 2014. Retrieved 13 March 2015. 
  7. ^ "Food Marketing in Other Countries". Center for Science in the Public Interest. 2007. Retrieved 13 March 2015. 
  8. ^ Smith, Andrew F. (5 September 2000). Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food. Greenwood Press. p. x. ISBN 978-0313335273. 
  9. ^ Larsen, Joeanne; MS, RD, LD http://www.dietitian.com/junkfood.html
  10. ^ University of Glasgow (31 October 2013). "Pizza perfect! A nutritional overhaul of 'junk food,' ready-meals is possible". ScienceDaily. Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  11. ^ "What Makes a Food Junk?". Huffington Post. 4 August 2010. 
  12. ^ Magee, Elaine. "Junk-Food Facts". WebMD. 
  13. ^ Feldman, Stanely; Vincent Marks (2005). Panic Nation: Unpicking the Myths We're Told About Food and Health. London: John Blake Publishing. ISBN 9781844541225. 
  14. ^ O'Neill, Brendan (3 October 2005). "Is junk food a myth?". BBC News (London: BBC). Retrieved 10 February 2015.  Vincent Marks is an Emeritus Professor of Clinical Biochemistry at the University of Surrey.
  15. ^ Zimmer, Ben (30 Dec 2010). "On Language: Junk". New York Times. Retrieved 19 March 2015. 
  16. ^ Popik, Barry (26 December 2008). "Junk Food". Barry Popik. Retrieved 19 March 2015. Barry Popik is a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, Dictionary of American Regional English, Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Yale Book of Quotations and Dictionary of Modern Proverbs. Since 1990 he has also been a regular contributor to Gerald Cohen's Comments on Etymology. He is recognized as an expert on the origins of the terms Big Apple, Windy City, hot dog, hamburger and many other food terms, and he is an editor of the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink.
  17. ^ Sena, Matt. "Fast Food Industry Analysis 2015 - Cost & Trends". FranchiseHelp. Retrieved 27 March 2015. 
  18. ^ "Supermarket Facts". Food Marketing Institute. Retrieved 27 March 2015. 
  19. ^ "Larry Groce "Junk Food Junkie"". K-tel International. Retrieved 20 March 2015. 
  20. ^ Grossman, Samantha (16 Nov. 2012). "Top 10 Iconic Junk Foods". Time. Retrieved 28 March 2015.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  21. ^ Roizman, Tracey. "Reasons Eating Junk Food Is Not Good". SFGate (Demand Media). Retrieved 29 March 2015. 
  22. ^ Johnson, Paul M.; Kenny, Paul J. (2010). "Addiction-like reward dysfunction and compulsive eating in obese rats: Role for dopamine D2 receptors". Nature Neuroscience 13 (5): 635–41. doi:10.1038/nn.2519. PMC 2947358. PMID 20348917. 
  23. ^ Goodwin, Jennifer (March 29, 2010). "Junk Food 'Addiction' May Be Real". Bloomberg Business Week. BLOOMBERG L.P. Archived from the original on 19 April 2012. 
  24. ^ Craving for junk food 'inherited' Mothers who eat junk food during pregnancy may be condemning their children to crave the same diet, according to animal tests. BBC News. 14 August 2007.
  25. ^ Saez, Catherine (11 June 2014). "UN Advisor Denounces Junk Food As ‘Culprit’ In Rising NCDs, Calls For Change". Intellectual Property Watch. Retrieved 27 March 2015. 
  26. ^ "Denmark scraps its infamous fat tax after only one year". EurActiv. 14 November 2012. Retrieved 27 March 2015. 
  27. ^ Kliff, Sarah (13 November 2012). "Denmark scraps world’s first fat tax". Washington Post. Retrieved 27 March 2015. 
  28. ^ Clemens Bomsdorf. "Denmark Scraps Much-Maligned 'Fat Tax' After a Year". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2012-11-14. 
  29. ^ "Welcoming the age of disease prevention". December 17, 2011. 
  30. ^ "Avgiftssatser for 2012". regjeringen.no. 2011-10-06. Retrieved 2012-10-22. 
  31. ^ Figueroa-Alcantara, Héctor (28 October 2013). "Mexican Senate approves tax scheme for 2014, (in Spanish).". Excelsior. Retrieved 31 October 2013. 
  32. ^ "The Impact of Advertising on Childhood Obesity". American Psychological Association. Retrieved 17 March 2015. 
  33. ^ Denis Campbell (21 March 2014). "Children are being 'bombarded' by junk food ads, research has found". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 March 2015. 
  34. ^ Hagan, Kate (27 January 2015). "Junk food ads saturate cricket". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 27 January 2015. 
  35. ^ Warren Belasco (1989) Appetite for Change: how the counterculture took on the food industry 1966 — 1988, page 150, Pantheon Books ISBN 0394543998

Smith, Andrew F. (2006). Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0313335273. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]