Defining Junk Food (Part 1)

I spent the past month writing a series trying to determine whether or not certain snack foods were junk foods. It made me ask myself, “What is junk food?”

The thing is, we all define it differently. 

I know people who think anything processed is junk food. So, the applesauce and the pressed fruit would be considered junk food by them, even though I don’t consider them junk. 

I often ask these people, “What about dried beans or canned beans?” Dried beans have been dried, which is a form of processing. But, you rehydrate it and you’re eating a plant. Many fruits and vegetables we eat have been processed in some form. Ever buy Brussel sprouts that have already been cut from the stem? That’s usually how I buy mine. Ever buy shelled edamame? I prefer that over trying to shell them myself or eating the shell. 

Certainly, there are processed foods that are junk, but you can’t make a broad generalization like that.
I’d rephrase it as: Junk foods are foods that have been processed so that they no longer resemble the original whole food ingredients and that no longer contain the health benefits of the original whole food ingredients.

You may recall, I first looked at a yogurt that contained chicory root fiber, pectin, soy lecithin, guar gum, and locust bean gum, among other things. All of those ingredients came from whole foods (plants) at some point in time. But, they’ve been highly processed and are no longer recognizable. You can’t see the locust beans in the yogurt.
Applesauce is mostly apples.

On the other hand, you can still see the fruits in the two foods I identified as healthy snacks. In both they have been processed—dried in one case and pureed in the other—but the whole fruit is still the main ingredient and it was processed in a way that retains some of the nutrients. 

Additionally, for me, junk foods are foods high in added sugars. If the applesauce or the fruit bar had added sugars, I would have been less likely to call them healthy snacks. 

That said, I have always loved dessert and I have always believed there is room for sweet junk foods in my diet. That’s how I got the nickname “The Junk Food Nutritionist.”

Even though I believe in everything in moderation, I have been working to reduce my intake of added sugars. I don’t limit my intake of natural sugars from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy (which are health foods, in my book).

But, like I said, everyone defines junk food differently. So, I polled some other dietitians. I will share their responses with you next week.


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