You define it: Junk food

You define it: Junk food

Junk food. What is it? And does it matter how we define it?

Inspired by a recent article by Dr. Chris van Tulleken (an infectious disease doctor at University College London Hospitals), we’ve been digging through the food labels in our cupboards – and through a stack of research – to find out why junk food matters in 2023.

Tulleken wrote that food has replaced tobacco as the top cause of early death around the world. And in the US, more people die from illnesses related to poor diet than from fighting in every war in the entire history of the US.

Indeed, research published by Harvard Health shows that chronic food illness kills as many as 678,000 Americans annually. And numbers from the World Health Organisation suggest 11 million people worldwide die from unhealthy food every year.

Where does ‘junk food’ come from?

‘Junk food’ has uncertain origins. People have been using the term since the early 1950s, and it appeared in an American newspaper headline in 1952. But a nutritional scientist named Michael F. Jacobson is most frequently credited with coining it in 1972.

Essentially, ‘junk food’ has always been used to describe food that’s high in salt, fat, or sugar. But as food related illness and death becomes a bigger and bigger problem, we might need to widen the scope of junk to include more of the factors that make food unhealthy.

How junk gets hidden

We’ve long thrown around the phrase ‘processed food’ along with ‘junk food’. But not all food is processed equally. Do we need to define which processes create low-nutrient or high-harm foods?

Processed food isn’t bad. Most of the food we eat is processed in some way or another – even when you throw some broccoli in a pan with a splash of water and heat it up, you’re effectively processing it.

But a little over ten years ago, scientists in Brazil spotted an unexpected result in data they’d collected through national nutrition surveys. Obesity had transformed from being a rare condition to Brazil’s major public health concern; and yet, people had cut down their consumption of oil and sugar.

Seemingly, the population had been educated about the dangers of fat and sugar, and they were doing something about it. But what they didn’t know was that the stuff they were eating much more of – industrially processed food – was also rich in health risks.

So the scientists created the term ‘ultra processed foods’, or UPFs.

Why is this important?

Because by defining UPFs (and they did define them, in great detail), these scientists created a hypothesis that could be tested all over the world:

That UPFs were causing health problems.

The rush of global studies that followed found that high UPF consumption is linked to loads of serious illnesses and health conditions, including…

…and more.

This growing body of research has also helped us to understand which processes and processing ingredients are having a negative impact. Like texture manipulation processes that transform long-life packaged goods from dry and unappealing to deliciously moist.

And sometimes it’s what’s not in processed foods that matters: fresh fruits and vegetables, for example, are rich in many thousands of phytochemicals, which our bodies need. By contrast UPFs are very low in phytochemicals – so if we’re eating mostly UPFs, our bodies are missing out.

So what does this mean for F&B?

We spend a lot of time developing ways to increase food security and food safety. So as an industry, we can’t just make sure that as many people as possible have access to food – we also need to make sure they have access to food that makes them healthier.

Is it time that F&B businesses helped to redefine junk food? Could the industry be more transparent about processes, and play a key role in educating the global public – so people can make healthier choices?

Maybe it’s time to develop a fresh perspective on junk food.

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