Junk food: a meaningless term?

The term “junk food” dates back to the 1950s, when it appeared for the first time in a newspaper article in which the author intended for junk food (or “cheat food”) all foods consisting mainly of sugar.  refined or refined syrups of sugar and flour, such as white bread, crackers, cakes, candies, ice cream, sugary carbonated drinks.  Later (1972) the term was taken up by Michael F. Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Today the meaning of this term (very fashionable) has widened a lot, to the point that you cannot give an exact definition and in fact everyone considers junk food as a subset of foods that depends very much on the point where you want to put the bar  of your own personal extremism.  As we shall see, giving a definition of junk food that does not lead straight to sensational inconsistencies is practically impossible.  And this makes the use of this misleading term useless if not counterproductive.

 Definitions of junk food

Andrew F. Smith, in his book “Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food” defines junk food as “those commercial products, including sweets, baked goods, ice cream, salty snacks and soft drinks, which have little or no nutritional value  , but they contain a lot of calories, salt and fat. ”

I start from this definition only because it is the only one that makes a minimum of sense, as I refuse to judge those who consider, for example, all fast food as junk food.  It doesn’t seem necessary to explain that a hamburger can be 100% genuine and healthy food, depending on how it is prepared, or that a salad can be very fast but equally healthy and low-calorie. Very often we speak of “empty calories”, meaning exactly what we find in Smith’s definition: a food rich in energy, but low in other nutrients.  My question then is: what exactly is meant by “nutritional value”?  Because if I take a nutritional label, the first thing I see are calories and macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats).  Which evidently are nutrients, and I will say more: they are the most important.  Only vitamins and minerals, or fiber, you do not live. I will then be told that, since the problem is overeating, the nutrients we are talking about are those considered “good”: fiber, minerals, vitamins.  Junk food is therefore high calorie food, but low in vitamins, minerals and fiber.  Very well: so if I take a food rich in sugars and calories, but equally rich in “nutrients”, can I not categorize it as junk food?  If I take a fruit sorbet with brown sugar, which contains 100% carbohydrates and a lot of calories (so it makes my blood sugar jump, it makes me fat, it has the effect similar to that of a drug, it gives me  habituation, and so on), but it is rich in vitamins and minerals, can I not consider it junk food?  And eat it quietly, when I feel like it, how much do I think?  Probably not. Probably (and rightly) I will be told that the extra vitamins and fibers in the “good” sorbet do not have great influence from the point of view of the effects on health, which are substantially identical to those of any sorbet.  Therefore, all sorbets are to be considered junk food, because they all contain too much sugar.  So what does the “nutrients” that would be missing from junk food have to do with it? Junk food is high calorie, too salty or too fatty, period.  The talk of “nutrients” does not stand up: if Tizio eats a sandwich with two ounces of mortadella, and Caio a sandwich with two ounces of mortadella and two ounces of vegetables, they have both eaten too much mortadella: the vegetable that Caio has eaten has not  has made mortadella particularly less harmful … The calories, fats and salt are always those (many).  Very well, therefore we got to the point: junk food, or junk food, is what contains “too much” of something: too much refined sugar, too much refined flour, too much fat or too much saturated fat, too much salt, too much cholesterol, in short too many  of those nutrients (yes, all the ones I listed are nutrients) that are considered harmful.  Now the question arises: where do we put the rod?  We talked about quantities: therefore if I want to distinguish a junk food from a good one I only need a number: HOW MANY sugars, saturated fats, etc. etc. must it contain a percentage of food to be considered junk?

And here the d***** falls.  Because after determining these numbers we discover that they become junk food: Parmigiano-Reggiano, together with all the Italian PDO cheeses excluding perhaps a couple (for calories and / or saturated fats and / or salt), all Italian PDO cured meats (  for saturated fats and / or salt and / or calories) Nutella and all other genuine spreads (for calories and / or sugars and / or saturated fats), all pastry products including pearls from the  Italian pastries such as panettone and pandoro, Sicilian pastiera and cannoli, and so on.  Any food rich in calories and fat, and therefore practically all the delicacies of Italian gastronomy, becomes junk food. You will say: eh no, but where do you put the quality?  Ah, ok, the quality.  And what does quality have to do with it? Does a potato fried in extra virgin olive oil “hurt less” than a fried in peanut oil?  I would not say.  Same fat, same salt, same calories. Is a biscuit made with butter “less harmful” than one made with palm oil?  I have serious doubts: saturated fats are identical and calories as well. Does an industrial aged pecorino cheese hurt less than a DOP aged pecorino cheese?  No, because the nutritional values are identical.  Same calories, same fat, same salt. The quality of the food, if we consider the definition that is usually given of junk food, has no influence on the healthiness of the product.  And this has a very simple explanation: there are products that by their nature contain “empty calories”, that is, they are high in calories and rich in fats or sugars and low in micronutrients.  To give it such a negative connotation, considering them “garbage” does not make any sense because in this way, when you want to adopt this strategy to set up an information campaign that is useful for improving the situation, misunderstandings arise automatically.  Because a person who pays attention to what he eats obviously wants to avoid these foods: the concept of junk applied to food is not the best, right? Practical examples are not lacking.  Denmark in 2011 imposed a tax on foods that contained more than 2.6% saturated fat.  After just a year they reversed, due to the “pressure from the lobbies of the food industry”, someone will say, but in reality any sensible nutritionist would agree that it does not make sense to tax a food because it contains 3% saturated fat when every day  up to 10% more than calories! Today (2016) some states are planning to adopt or have already adopted the “traffic light” on the label: green if it can be consumed habitually, yellow if it must be consumed carefully, red if it can be consumed only sporadically.  This idea could also have some utility (I doubt it), but it is not enough, a criterion of interpretation is also needed, and the reason we have already said previously: a grate of 10 g of Parmesan on the pasta is absolutely allowed even twice a day.  day, but Parmesan would most likely have a red light!  So how do we put it?  We put it this way: since it is the dose that makes the poison, we should know, at least in broad terms, what this dose is for each food, in order to be free to take what we like without worry and without risking depriving ourselves of food  unnecessarily, especially if this is not enough to stay healthy!  In other words, it takes a minimum of food consciousness. The truth is, junk foods don’t exist! The truth is, no food can ever be considered bad.  No food hurts in itself, but there is an intake threshold for everyone beyond which it becomes harmful.  It is the dose that makes the poison.  It makes no sense to define a “junk” food, effectively decreeing the ban on total or almost total intake, for those who want to follow a correct diet.  Nor does it make sense to say that if obesity is so widespread it is because of the presence of certain foods on the market.  If anything, the fault lies with the abuse of certain foods, but this also applies to Grandma Pina’s noodles, not only to KFC’s fried chicken. Demonizing certain foods in this way from a nutritional point of view is of little use.  Everyone knows that Nutella, chocolate, greaves, salami, fried food, etc. are not the best in terms of health, and that you have to take them with criteria, while we can take fruit and vegetables with more freedom.  But this does not mean that those foods should be considered “junk”, and therefore assimilated to something that hurts us “regardless”.

On Wikipedia the article on junk food is terrifying, you read hallucinating phrases like “The most common diseases towards which the use of junk food leads are obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, some types of cancer, depression, etc.  ”  ARE WE JOKING?  According to this article, does the use (it says USE, not abuse) of chocolate, hamburgers, elaborate sweets etc. lead to obesity, diabetes and cancer? But even the English one, although much more balanced, is not free from “questionable” passages like this: “François Magendie showed by experiment in 1816 that dogs died when fed only sugar.”  Really?  Really?  If you feed dogs, animals that tend to be carnivorous, for which sugar is harmful even in small quantities and should never be given, do they die only with sugar?  Even if you drink only water, you die: is water a junk food?  But what are they talking about? You can eat very badly while taking all foods rich in nutrients: it is enough to eat too much, as most Italians do, and among these there are many who do not even want to hear about “junk food”, yet they are overweight and therefore eat badly  !  On the contrary, a subject could safely take junk food every day, in the right quantities, and have iron health. For this reason, there is no point in talking about junk food. We just need to talk about proper nutrition. It’s more complicated, I know, but at least it’s effective for those who try it.



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