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Is This What You Call Junk Food?

Junk food is rarely out of the news these days, but the tag seems to be applied very selectively. So do we really know what is good and bad for us?

You can’t open a newspaper or switch on the TV without hearing about the latest initiative to wean young people in particular off junk food and on to healthier.

Junk food ads are already banned during TV programmes aimed at children. This is in addition to a ban on the sale of chocolate, crisps, fizzy drinks and ‘junk food’ in schools across the nation.

But what exactly is junk food?

For most people, the phrase conjures up images of hamburgers, pizzas, chips and sweets.

For the Food Standards Agency – from which both the government get their definition of junk food – it is any food high in fat, salt or sugar.

So why are some fatty foods defined as ‘junk’, but others are not? Government ministers and celebrity chefs look down their noses at French fries, which in McDonald’s contain about 5g of fat, and at the same time think nothing of tucking into a dish like duck a l’orange, which can contain 15 to 20g of fat in a single serving.

And why are some food outlets, such as McDonald’s or Domino’s Pizza, labelled as ‘junk’, while others that serve similar dishes, like posh burger bars or Pizza Express, are seen as being acceptable and trendy, and possibly even healthy?

Using figures from Calorie King, we compared the nutritional content of dishes served in various high street restaurant chains and discovered that the label ‘junk food’ is used selectively indeed.

PIZZA

Domino’s:

Half an American Hot

507 calories

17.7g fat

59.4g carbs                 

 

Pizza Express:

Half an American Hot

517 calories

13.2g fat

68.6g carbs

 

Pizzas are viewed differently, depending on where you eat them. Domino’s Pizza, for example, is considered by many to be ‘junk food’, while Pizza Express, beloved of the middle classes, is seen as healthy Italian grub.

There is little real difference in terms of nutritional content between an outlet like Domino’s and the fashionable minimalist restaurants of Pizza Express.

For example, half an American Hot pizza in Pizza Express has more calories and more carbohydrates, while one in Domino’s has slightly more fat.

HAMBURGERS

McDonald’s:

Hamburger and strawberry milkshake

640 calories

18g fat            

 

Ed’s Diner:

Hamburger and strawberry milkshake

1,104 calories

31.8g fat

 

McDonald’s, the most famous sellers of hamburgers, is seen by some as the archetypal ‘junk food’ outlet. Yet other, trendier burger bars often serve fattier dishes.

McDonald’s has become more open about its nutritional content. Its leaflet, Our Food, Nutrition and You, was on prominent display in the two restaurants I visited.

By contrast, the manager of The Ultimate Burger in London – one of a clutch of upmarket burger restaurants to open in recent years – was unable to provide nutritional information. Various gastropubs also had no information about their burgers and chips.

Ed’s Easy Diner, however, a 50s-style outlet with branches around the capital, was able to provide information on its burgers and shakes – and they contain more fat than McDonald’s fare.

Aesthetic appeal

Why does the ‘junk food’ tag seem to be applied selectively, and often to food outlets in urban and suburban areas but not to those in leafier parts? Is there some snobbery at play here?

According to Peter Marsh, of the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, which studies food and obesity issues, the term ‘junk’ has become ‘simply a matter of aesthetics’, a way of disapproving of certain foods.

Johan Koeslag, a professor of medical physiology in South Africa, says junk food has become an ‘empty’ phrase.

He points out that French fries are seen as ‘junk food’, but roast potatoes are not. Bread is a basic foodstuff, but biscuits are ‘junk’. The sugar in cake is detrimental to health, but the sugar in honey and grapes is considered not to be.

Readers Comments

Fast food outlet burgers will have less calories and fat because they are far smaller. They don’t properly constitute a full meal and are often eaten as snacks.

Robin, Edinburgh

To my mind junk food is anything made with poor quality ingredients and stuffed with all manner of otherwise unnecessary additives. On this basis many supposedly ‘healthy’ low-fat, low-sugar foods are actually junk, with modified starch, artificial sweeteners and the like added to take the place of what’s been left out. To eat well all that’s needed is real food, made with a range of good quality ingredients, consumed in sensible quantities.

Phil, Romford, Essex

Eating a 2,000 calorie double-chicken burger on a one-off trip to a restaurant isn’t going to make you unhealthy or obese but eat it three of four times a week from a conveyor belt outlets on the High Street and it will. The problem is making people aware of their RDA of fat, salt and calories so they can budget for these meals accordingly.

Pete Brooksbank, Nottingham

A Big Mac every once in a while, or indeed a creme brulee, is not going to hurt, but it’s excess – the pathology of our society in general that is damaging. The junk label is a lot to do with snobbery and class. Notice that expensive, unhealthy food is never labelled junk.

Gus Swan, London, UK

Perhaps it’s time people used their brains rather than relied on someone tagging food as ‘junk’. The majority of the British public are not so thick that they cannot figure out that a burger from McDonald’s is similarly high in fat to one from a gastro-pub or other outlet, albeit that you are paying 2x or 3x as much for the latter.

Fat Dave, Cheshire

Labels will always have to be applied. It is easy and convenient to apply the term junk food and to demonise its providers. Your findings do not surprise me. What really is ‘healthy’ food anyway? It is balance in life that is important. Plus of course exercise, which is sadly lacking for many people today.

Ian Parry, Urmston, Manchester, England