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What counts as "junk food"?

What exactly is junk food?

Some things are obvious ... Soda, candy bars, donuts, etc.

And some things are obviously not junk food ... fruits, vegetables, etc.

But between those two poles is a vast murky middle ground, right?

Take candy bars for example. You say a Snickers bar is junk, but what about a Snickers Dark, which is made out of dark chocolate. Dark chocolate is supposed to have anti-oxidant and other healthful benefits. And, aren't peanuts good for you, which all Snickers bars have? Junk?

And what about something benign like rice cakes. They certainly aren't harmful in the sense that they are full of transfats or high in sodium or sugar, but then they are essentially empty calories -- offering only simple carbs and very little fiber. Junk? If cardboard had calories, we would just call them rice cakes and make the dictionary one word less voluminous.

Or, how about cheese pizza? Cheese is high in calcium and protein. Tomato sauce is high in anti-oxidants and vitamins and minerals. Is the problem that the crust may be made from white flour? What if it was a whole-wheat crust? Still junk?

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  1. It is a misnomer and absurd to call any food that makes one happy "junk." Is vodka, or tequilla a "junk" beverage because its nutrients are minimal?

    1 Reply
    1. re: beevod

      The trouble with this is defining happiness, particularly the relationship between long term happiness and short term happiness. To a smoker, a cigarette certainly provides happiness. The trouble is that it's short term happiness. In the long term, chances are that cigarette is providing substantial levels of unhappiness. Poor physical health is one of the leading contributors to the causation of a wide range of psychological and emotional issues which all lead to a state of life most would classify as general unhappiness. Unhealthy eating is, in the US, the current leading cause of avoidable health issues.
      Now, to be fair, eating unhealthy foods in moderation isn't likely to lead to health problems, addiction, or contribute significantly to a state of unhappiness. Smoking cigarettes in moderation similarly has been demonstrated to have a negligible effect on health, mental or physical. Unfortunately, in the case of both unhealthy foods and cigarettes, most consumers who use the product are not using it in moderation. The same, fortunately, cannot be said of alcohol, most consumers of which are using the product in moderation.
      To me, this makes it perfectly fair to label, say, Funyuns as junk food. If we can't diss crap like that, we can't diss cigarettes either.

    2. This is an interesting one to ponder, ipsedixit (BTW, have I ever mentioned how much I appreciate your name? I teach Latin!).

      I think my answer to that question can be answered with a simple xy graph -- the x axis being "level of factory processing" and the y axis being "unhealthiness". So something could have a high y but a low x -- high in fat, or pure carbs, or whatever, but unprocessed (I'm thinking heavy cream, or brains, or something) -- and I wouldn't call it "junk food." BUT, the converse wouldn't necessarily be true. Even something lowfat, or low carb, or whatever, that bears no resemblance to any ingredient found in nature (fat free Twinkies, light beer *wink*), I would label as "junk" in almost every situation.

      Which, I guess, makes the whole graph thing break down, doggonit.

      So a simple answer would be: junk food is anything that, through extensive processing, becomes a product whose component ingredients are unidentifiable.

      Your specific examples -- I'd call snickers bars junk in all their iterations, even with almonds. Factory processing, presence of HFCS, and quality of ingredients push this one over to the "junk" side. Rice cakes -- not junk, but why bother? Eat a bowl of rice crispies instead. ;) Totino's frozen cheese pizza, definitely junk. Super-processed. My homemade pizza, or the one from the gourmet joint down the street that uses San Marzano tomatoes and locally made mozzarella and basil from the herb garden out back is definitely NOT junk. In fact, I would like some of that mythical pizza right this minute!

      All this is said with tongue firmly in cheek, FWIW! :)

      Valete, y'all!

      2 Replies
      1. re: LauraGrace

        Your graph breaks down because the two variables - processing and unhealthiness - are not independent.

        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

          Blast! Curse my mediocre graphing skills!! *shakes fist at the heavens*

          ;)

      2. This is a no-brainer. Junk food has calories, but little or no nutritional value. I think we all know it when we see it. Some examples are ice cream, potato chips, pork rinds, you get the idea.

        4 Replies
        1. re: pikawicca

          Maybe not. Don't underestimate a groundswell of people in denial wanting their favorites to be worth something. You had me going until the pork rinds. ;-)

          1. re: pikawicca

            Wait! Isn't there calcium in ice cream? Do you mean to tell me that I've been eating ice cream all these years and my bones are no better for it? Impossible, I say!!! And, what about my nightly red wine? Are you telling me that it has no value for my heart? Impossible, I say!!!! Now, the potato chips, I'm just might have to agree with that assessment.

            1. re: bucksguy14

              When it comes down to it, ice cream is just cold sweet grease. Good red wine is divine no matter how you drink it.

            2. re: pikawicca

              I wouldn't quite call ice cream junk food (that is not an excuse, I don't eat it because of the cow's milk and the white sugar, two things I don't eat). It does contain calcium and other minerals.

              It is a problem when one is talking about food that is too fatty, sweet, salty or high in calories but does contain significant nutrients - such as nuts for example.

            3. I see good opinions here, but I'm thinking it will end up being too subjective to define, due mostly to beevod's post, which is absolutely on the money.

              1. Junk food is in the eye of the beholder. What I consider junk food may be the nutritional highlight of your week. I would say that foods that are highly processed, have high bad fat and/or sugar content, and use questionable quality of ingredients are junk, but my judgment would vary on a case by case basis. Recchiuti's burnt caramel = delicious, special treat; Rolo's = junk food. That's just me.