Don’t take the term literally. Junk food doesn’t mean that the food is made up of rubbish or trash. It’s a term given to a group of foods which have small amounts of nutrients. They may be made up of a lot of unhealthy fats, salt, sugar or processed additives. In other words, these foods have little or zero nutritional value. For the greater fraction of the population, the term junk food paints pictures of chips, lollies, and hamburgers. However, it’s pretty clear there are many other foods that can be categorised within this group.
Traditionally, junk foods were offered as treats or rewards to children once a week (or even once a month). Unfortunately, these days they’re eaten right after a meal, before or between meals and often on a daily basis. Think about that little chocolate bar you had on your afternoon tea break, washed down with an fizzy drink.
What makes a particular food a junk food? Here are some characteristics of junk foods.
Junk foods are foods that have a lot of calories in them with little nutritional value – ie vitamins & minerals.
Conversely, junk foods may be foods with nutritional value, but contain added ingredients deemed harmful or unhealthy for consumption.
Junk foods are low in satiation value. You don’t feel full after eating them. What you do feel is dissatisfied, often leading you to overeat.
Instead of eating a nutritious food, you replace it with junk food. Your appetite has no more room for nutritious foods because you’ve extinguished your hunger with junk foods.
A junk food very often no longer resembles the food it originally came from. The raw ingredients used to make that food item become a processed combination of numerous ingredients, not a whole food any longer.
Ingredients or substances which partially or completely make up a food and therefore classify it as a junk food include:
Partially hydrogenated oil – Trans fats!
High fructose corn syrup – cheaper alternative to table sugar, but highly processed.
MSG (monosodium glutamate) – this is a flavour enhancer – and any of its aliases (of which there are many), autolyzed yeast, sodium caseinate, maltodextrin, hydrolysed vegetable protein, yeast extract, and autolyzed vegetable protein.
Sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate – used to colour junk food, mixes with your stomach acid to form nitrosamines, very potent cancer-causing substances.
Propyl gallate – acts as a preservative to prevent oils and fats from going rancid.
BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) – well-known carcinogens used for their antioxidant properties in processed foods.
Yellow #5 (tartrazine) and Red #40 – food colourings associated with the development of certain cancers.
Refined or processed carbohydrates in your ice cream, cookies, desserts, cakes etc
Presence of burnt or damaged fats which become harmful to our health, particularly cardiovascular health
The majority of junk foods are fast foods or snack (comfort, convenience) foods.
For the record, not all fast foods are junk foods (e.g: salads, sushi).
Fast foods are foods that are prepared quickly and are easily accessible many hours of the day. They’re the type of food you see in basic restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations. Also, they may be packaged conveniently for takeout. Fast foods are more often than not produced and processed on a bigger scale to reduce costs. The majority of the ingredients are pre-prepared at another location before being delivered to restaurants. These items will often be quickly put together, reheated or cooked.
The meaning of the term ‘junk’ food may vary from person to person. What one person perceives as having nutrition, will be considered an obvious junk food to another. When deciding whether or not your food is junk food, think about its nutritional value. What ingredients were included? Were they used in their original state or have they been processed so much they no longer resemble how they come in nature? How was the food prepared? How long will it last in your pantry?
These are just some of the questions you should seriously think about before stating that the food you’re eating isn’t junk. We are not saying never to eat junk food. We are saying how often. Once a day? Once a week? Once a month? We’ll leave you to ponder.