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Tell Me What “Junk Food” Is

Much opprobrium has been heaped on junk food in recent years. I’m willing to listen–but if we’re going to eliminate it from our diets, we first have to know what it is.

So…give me a definition.

The definition must be precise; that is, terms like “empty calories” or “having no nutritional value” are subjective judgments and thus not useful. Specify ingredients, and proportions (as percentages) if necessary. Furthermore, the definition must be about the food itself. Where it’s prepared or served is a separate issue and cannot be part of the definition. If an ingredient is junk, it’s junk whether it’s served at Mickey D’s or at Olive Garden or at the $75-a-plate fancy dinner joint of your choice. (Or at home.)

Methods of preparation may be cited, but again, such citations have to apply across the board, no matter who does it or where. Expensive junk is still junk.

Finally, “the term is meaningless” is a legitimate answer. However, if that’s the case, let’s make it meaningful, by creating a clear definition.

Let’s hear from you.


  1. Junk food: Any popular food currently out of fashion with nutritionists. Especially applies to food which is inexpensive and favored by those of limited means.


  2. David Stafford says:

    Oh, Jeff, have you opened the mother-of-all cans of worms.

    It would take much effort and would be highly controversial but a definition like this would be terrifically useful: Junk food is food which is poison. That is, instead of extending your life expectancy, it shortens it.

    1. The real joker in the deck is that not everyone responds to all foods (or food chemicals) identically. I don’t taste umami, and MSG makes me sick. To me, then, anything with MSG in it is junk food, and I assiduously avoid it, since the stuff adds nothing to my experience of the food and makes me miserable. (But dare ya to find barbecue potato chips without it!)

      People who react badly to dairy products might justifiably say the same thing about milk and cheese. Does that mean dairy products are junk food? I would say not, but their criteria are identical to mine with respect to MSG.

      The science is still pretty raw, but it’s becoming ever clearer that polyunsaturated fats are a very bad thing, and are bad much more universally than MSG. Ditto high-fructose corn syrup. Other things may eventually join that crowd, but we just don’t know yet. For the time being, a definition may be impossible, and the term may remain meaningless for the foreseeable future, for no better reason than the fact that we are not all identical in our biochemistry.

      1. David Stafford says:

        Perhaps we should think of foods as drugs and evaluate them in the same way. That would clear up the problems created by allergies, unusual reactions, and the effects of combining various foods.

        It would take the same kind of effort (a lot!) that goes into classifying drugs but I think it would resolve the problem you describe and give us a way to define junk food in terms of a drug: Does it help the average person or would it hurt them?

        I suspect the science is the easy part. The hard part is extracting our biases and preconceived notions to get at the truth. But this is what the science is for, isn’t it?

  3. Aki says:

    Potter Stewart:
    [I can’t define what is pornography.] “But I know it when I see it.”

    The same principle applies to junk food.

    This is junk food:

    This is not:

    1. Kalakukko sounds like a helluva meal, and no way is it junk. But the main problem with Big Macs are the monster white-bread buns. The meat actually isn’t bad at all. On a solid cracked-wheat bun they’d come off a lot better, and I’d pay another dollar for the product if it were available.

  4. Carrington says:

    Junk Food: Any food of which the speaker disapproves.

  5. Darrin Chandler says:

    After everyone settles on what Junk Food is, please explain to me how pizza qualifies and yet seems to be the closest thing to a food-pyramid-in-a-dish we have.

    1. Don’t wait up for a generally accepted definition; I’m certainly not going to. But simply raising the issue seemed useful.

      I’ve paid $25 for a one-person pizza at fancy Italian restaurants, and found them indistinguishable from Papa Murphy’s. Which in my view means both of them are good to very good, and neither is anywhere near what I’d call “junk food.” The food-pyramid-in-a-box is a great point; alas, among too many in the nutrition community, “use sparingly” means “avoid like the plague.”

      And the reason, as always, is “because I say so.”

    2. Keith Dick says:

      Food pyramid in a box. You say (write) that as if that were a good thing. It probably isn’t. The food pyramid has no scientific basis — it is mainly the result of lobbying by the Big Agriculture industry and the Big Food industy. They, unfortunately, don’t have the public health as one of their goals. The last version of the food pyramid that I’ve seen still has far too much carbohydrates and not enough healthy fats to be the basis of a proper healthy diet.

      1. Keith Dick says:

        oops, I didn’t copy your food-pyramid-in-a-dish phrase correctly. Please read food-pyramid-in-a-dish for “food pyramid in a box” in my previous post.

      2. I should have been clearer on this. The point made was that even though conventional wisdom holds that pizza is junk food, pizza represents the epitome of the food pyramid: a large slab of carbs with a little cheese and a scattering of vegetables on it–and maybe a few shreds of meat. I personally consider the food pyramid bogus and dangerous, like a lot of conventional wisdom on nutrition, much of which (as you very correctly point out) is the result of back-room politicking with government busybodies and Big Ag lobbyists.

      3. Darrin Chandler says:

        I don’t meant to say it as if the food pyramid is a good thing. I’m pointing out that something approaching the health/medical mainstream ideal of nutrition is often vilified as an example of unhealthy junk food by that same mainstream.

        They’ve pulled the food pyramid out of their, er, hat. You can’t apply the guidelines literally and expect to reach conclusions that will please nutritionists or doctors.

  6. Erbo says:

    I don’t know why, but, when I read this post and the above comments, I can clearly hear the voice of Larry Groce: “In the daytime I’m Mr. Natural/Just as healthy as I can be/But at night I’m a junk-food junkie/Good Lord, have pity on me!”

    That whole song is about someone who takes great pride in his “healthy eating” habits during the day, but can’t resist the temptation of more “ordinary” foods at night. I think at least part of the whole “diet” thing must be related to the dieters’ need to lord it over others for being “more responsible,” just as with hybrid cars in the South Park episode “Smug Alert!”.

  7. Chuck Waggoner says:

    Velveeta is junk food to me.

    We have many varieties of really good whole-grain breads here in Germany, and I have to tell the story of my encounter with American bread. In my mother’s last years after my father’s passing, I spent several months at a time with her. On one trip, I bought a loaf of ordinary grocery-bought dark sandwich bread. For some reason, instead of putting it in the normal place for bread (probably too much other stuff there), I put it on the top shelf of a kitchen cabinet, where there was lots of room.

    My mom was short and could never have reached that bread–and obviously did not even see it. I left in July, and returned in December. When I got back, I saw that loaf of bread and thought OMG that will be one nasty loaf of moldy bread.

    I WAS WRONG! It looked like the very day I put it up there–even felt soft to the touch.

    I told my relatives this story, and their response? “Yeah, isn’t that great! Bread doesn’t mold anymore.”

    “No, that isn’t great,” was my reply. “If it doesn’t mold, it isn’t food!”

    Fortunately, bread in Germany still gets moldy after 6 or 7 days,–but even that is up from 3 or 4 days to mold when we first arrived 9 years ago. They are doing something to the bread here that they were not doing before.

    1. When we were in Germany in 2002, Carol and I had lunch on the banks of the Rhine with one of our publishing partners, and the sort of bread I had was called (I’ll say it phonetically) “wholekornbraht,” which was easily the densest bread I’d ever eaten. One slice was plenty. Have never seen anything even remotely like it here in the States.

      Preservatives bother us too, though there is the problem that they solve: We’re not big eaters, and a lot of food doesn’t come in small enough quantities for us to finish before it goes bad. I don’t eat as much bread as I used to for that reason. The sort of bread I’m willing to eat just doesn’t keep.

      1. Chuck Waggoner says:

        Yeah, “Vollkornbrot”. There are many varieties of dark bread here, not all of them heavy. The most popular is probably “Mehrkornbrot”, which is also my favorite. It has a slight malt vinegar taste, which I doubt many Americans would go for–but I sure wish they would. Almost all breads here have seeds, nuts, and other goodies added. I just bought a loaf of “Weissbrot” (white bread) for my wife, and it has the same color and consistency of a light rye, but does not taste like rye bread. No bread here is actually white in color, like Wonder bread in the States; all have a slightly brown tint to them. And most are not made in loaf pans, but cooked like what Americans call “flat bread”. Even so, they are not flat, but rise to about the same height as bread baked in a loaf pan.

        My wife’s grandmother ran a bakery in Madison, WI, which sold an all-natural whole-grain bread called “Vim” to the Chicago market back in the ’50’s. She eventually sold the bakery and the new owners messed with the recipe and Vim was gone by the mid ’60’s, but was very popular for a while.

        We still have all the recipes from her bakery and we made several different loaves in a bread machine while we lived in the US, prior to moving to Germany. After the second day, I sliced the loaf and put it in the freezer, and we just pulled out a slice at a time, as needed. That fed us for a week, with not much discernible degradation to the loaf–although James Beard’s books will tell you that any loaf of bread begins deteriorating after just a few hours out of the oven, and by the second day, has lost most of its original flavor and much of the food value. It’s too much to make a new loaf every other day, although you could buy one here, as bakeries with good bread are everywhere, and the bread is not that expensive–about the same as in the US, but made with MUCH better ingredients, and fewer preservatives.

  8. Tony Kyle says:

    Maybe this will answer the question:

    Junk Food Junkie by Larry Croce:

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