Fast food was introduced into the Miriam Webster dictionary in 1951. Junk food has been a part of nutrition vernacular since the 1970’s. Michael Jacobson of CSPI fame (Center for Science in the Public Interest) is credited with coining the term in 1972. Since then the crescendo of derision has only escalated for both terms.
Images of junk food embrace a wide range of foods. Soda, candy, cookies, chips and other snacks foods come to mind. Fast foods like hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, and pizza are frequently included. Ethnic foods get snagged as well, including tacos, burritos, ramen noodles, even curries and gyros. Interestingly, several sources noted that socioeconomic status plays a role, with the privileged class including many foods lower income people don’t consider junk food. So who gets to decide, and more importantly, is the derisive attention warranted?
A DEFINITION OF JUNK FOOD
Junk food conjures up images of refined sugar, starch and fat. Soda, fried snacks and candy are easy bets to make the list. Yet, very few people talk about Godiva chocolates or chocolate mousse with the same tone reserved for candy, despite a rather similar nutritional profile. French fries and potato chips are considered junk food, but not mashed potatoes or baked potatoes stuffed with butter and sour cream. Pretzels and other snack crackers get labeled, but not bread or croutons.
The junk food distortion field is even more deceiving when it comes to entrees and meals. Pizza is junk food, but not pasta with sauce and cheese. Tacos are often considered junk food, but not fajitas; nachos are, but tostadas are not. Are the ingredients all that different? It depends.
WHEN IS FAST FOOD NOT JUNK FOOD?
Despite what most people think, it is possible to eat tacos, pizza and hamburgers with a balance of ingredients and thoughtful side dishes for a meal that supports fitness and health goals. The mix of food matters. The best meal includes enough protein, adequate fat, and whole food sources of carbohydrate that work for the person eating it.
Research is telling us saturated fat from beef, cheese, and other dairy products may not be the problem scientists once claimed. As long trans fats are kept to a minimum, you may choose to get your fat from salad dressing or from a handful of french fries. Carbohydrates from whole foods are sometimes easier to get in more reasonable portions at fast food restaurants than the sit down types– and at a much better price. In addition, most fast food restaurants don’t keep refilling the basket of bread or tortilla chips before your meal.
THE TRUTH ABOUT SWEETENED BEVERAGES
Sweetened beverages top the list of junk foods and remains a notorious source of sugar in the American diet. But is fast food the source? A CDC study shows that 92% of all soda consumed at home was purchased at a store. Even when soda is consumed away from home, 43% is purchased at a store compared to 35% at a restaurant or fast food establishment. If pundits are going to denigrate fast food, at least they could be honest and denigrate every supermarket, big box store, liquor store, convenience mart, and most hospital cafeterias and pharmacies, too.
What people have come to assume is junk food isn’t always junky. Ask any diabetic. Blood sugar stabilizes much better with a Quarter Pounder than any fresh fruit smoothie. An Egg McMuffin is magic compared to a breakfast of frozen whole grain waffles w/ syrup. The most processed food people eat may be what they purchase at their local grocery store, and ironically sometimes fast food restaurants may be just the place to purchase whole fresh food prepared as fast as they can.