What Is Junk Food?

In a speech at the World Health Organization's annual summit, Olivier De Schutter, the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur, stirred up some controversy by stating how problematic the world's obsession with junk food has become. His exact words:

As such, he called for the world to begin putting limitations on junk food advertising, instituting taxes on unhealthy products, placing regulations on the amounts of fats and sugars that can be used, and halting agricultural subsidies for products that increase obesity. Which are all great ideas, and important to continue the war on junk food. The only problem is that, as of now, there is no true definition of junk food.

According to Merriam-Webster, junk food is:

If you want to expand the definition, junk food is also "low in satiation value" meaning that people don't feel full when they eat it. A lot of this could come from the fact that junk food is generally very low in fiber, making it easier to consume a lot in one sitting. (This is, after all, one of the biggest dangers of eating junk food: You're consuming high amounts of calories and it doesn't feel like it.)

Which is all a good start to defining junk food, but it doesn't give us any place to begin regulation. Mostly because a lot of the foods that fit the above classifications -- low in satiation, high in fats and sugars -- also have some nutritional benefits.

Take pizza, for example. On the one hand, it's generally high in fat and sugars, and I certainly can put away half without really knowing it. But at the same time the type of cheese, tomato sauce, and crust that's used makes a difference in the nutritional content. The same goes if you top it with a bunch of vegetables. Pizza can't be considered, across the board, as junk food.

So, where do we go?

As far as sodas are concerned, the ground's already been laid by a recent series of taxes and proposed bans. New York tried -- and has, thus far, failed -- to ban sodas that are sold in more than 16-ounce increments. The problem for future regulations, though, is what are sodas? Coke and Pepsi definitely are, but what about sports drinks with high caloric content? In San Francisco, there's currently a proposal for a tax on sugary drinks that defines them as any non-alcoholic beverage that contains at least 25 calories per 12 ounces. (The tax raises as the number of ounces in the beverage raises.) That's a good place to start.

As previously discussed in terms of pizza, things get a little trickier when it comes to food. Luckily for us, Mexico's already done us the favor of instituting a junk food tax on anything that "provides 275 calories or more per 100 grams." And now in American schools, the only food that can be sold in vending machines are items that have fewer than 200 calories for "snacks" and 350 for "entrees." That's helpful for determining what constitutes small serving size junk food.

But "calorie counting" methods of determining what's junk and what's not leave something to be desired. Not all calories are created equally. Which is why there should be additional qualifications.

Perhaps the fiber content needs to be discussed; maybe certain leniencies should be in place for foods with more than ten grams of fiber per 100 grams. In the junk food ban in American schools, nothing can be sold that contains over 35% sugar or fat; maybe that needs to be added to the definition. And, of course, the nutritional benefits need to be established by some strange combination of vitamins and proteins and healthy fats. (Don't worry, the consumer wouldn't have to keep track of this.)

The fact is, there isn't going to be an easy way to come to a definition for junk food. When an official one eventually is made, it will be some strange algorithm most of us won't be able to understand. We're already most of the way there.

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