What constitutes “junk food?”
November 23, 2021 9:05 AM   Subscribe

Other than the obvious (Little Debbie cakes, Cheez-its, etc.) Baked apples? Popcorn with melted brown sugar & butter? What about made from scratch applesauce muffins? Scratch cake with cherries in it and a light glaze on top? I eat other food, of course, but I MUST have dessert goodies. Weigh (heh) in, please.
posted by BostonTerrier to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Sorry, are you trying to avoid junk food or embrace it? And if you could provide some more context that would probably be helpful.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 9:10 AM on November 23 [5 favorites]

If you find out, please let me know. I can’t eat a darn thing without someone criticizing it. (The twelfth ingredient on this item was in an obscure study 50 years ago and thought to have caused cancer back then, and even though it was disproven this item is still total crap because it was not made entirely from fresh produce at Whole Foods. And, you’re a bad person for eating it.)
posted by Melismata at 9:14 AM on November 23 [14 favorites]

This is an unanswerable question. People have varying nutritional needs - some people need calorie dense foods, some people can’t digest foods with too much fiber or too much fat, etc.
posted by insectosaurus at 9:17 AM on November 23 [16 favorites]

When I was a kid, my mom (who was raised by a former hospital nutritionist) used the term "empty calories" when referring to junk food. My modern understanding of this is that it basically corresponds to "added sugar", which I think is increasingly coming to be seen as the only (or at least, the main) form of "junk" when it comes to food.

"Added sugar" comprises actual added sugar, honey, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, etc. Fruit juice arguably also falls under this heading, because of the way it hits one's digestive/metabolic system. Note: by this definition a banana contains NO added sugar, because the sugar in it isn't added (whole fruit is basically good for you).

The World Health Organization recommends that no more than 10%, and ideally no more than 5%, of one's daily caloric intake should come from added sugar.
posted by heatherlogan at 9:19 AM on November 23 [6 favorites]

I feel like this advice constitutes 9 out of 10 of my responses on AskMe, but talk to a registered dietitian about this. Human bodies are incredibly varied and also incredibly adaptable but we are currently swimming in a culture (in the U.S., at least) that says that there is One Right Way to Eat. There isn’t. Even among “healthy” foods (and what does that mean, anyway?) there are foods that do not work for certain bodies.

What I’m saying is, consult a credentialed expert. Otherwise it’s all opinion.
posted by corey flood at 9:21 AM on November 23 [5 favorites]

"Junk Food" is generally anything that delivers high calories without nutritional payoff (for instance, a chocolate chip cookie), or substitutes calories with non digestible filler content (for instance, a diet red bull). For an easy definition, junk food is food that does not contribute to your nutritional needs.

Importantly, consuming junk food is a morally neutral event.
posted by phunniemee at 9:22 AM on November 23 [21 favorites]

To me, junk food means stuff that's bought ready-to-eat, high calorie and low nutrition.

I would never think of anything home-baked as being junk food - so none of your examples sound like junk food to me. That doesn't mean they're entirely healthy (though if eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet, fine).

So yeah, I think we need some more explanation of what it is you're asking. Are you looking to eat more junk food and looking for ideas? Are you looking to eat treats but hoping to find some that aren't classed as junk food? Are you saying that you think the baked goods you list are junk food so you must avoid them, or that you hope they aren't junk food so you can eat them?
posted by penguin pie at 9:35 AM on November 23 [3 favorites]

OP, can you please clarify what you're looking for? It reads to me like you want non-junk food dessert options. Is that the case?
posted by orange swan at 9:35 AM on November 23

Response by poster: Clarification:
I’m aiming to *avoid* junk food; specifically, store-bought baked goods.
I eat a regular diet, high in fresh fruit, not terribly high in vegetables (though I like to pile on the spinach.)
When grocery shopping, I’m terribly susceptible to the baked goods isle, so I bake at home as much as possible. I figure my things made from organic flour and other organic ingredients are better than machine-made pies and muffins.
I eat one normal portion of home-baked goodie a day.
posted by BostonTerrier at 9:45 AM on November 23 [1 favorite]

I don't think "junk food" is a particularly useful category, but I have mostly heard that term used about highly-processed foods that are created in an industrial context. Whatever its nutritional content, I don't think that homemade, from scratch food is typically referred to as "junk food."

Personally, for me, one portion of homemade baked goodie a day seems fine, as long as the portion size isn't, like, an entire cake. But YMMV. Do you have any reason to think that's not working for you?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:50 AM on November 23 [2 favorites]

I have spent this year working with a therapist on food-related issues, and the answer I know she'd want me to say is:
-- no food is junk
-- all food is acceptable
-- your guidance for deciding what to eat should be "do I like this?" and "do I want this right now?" not "is it junk?"
-- "dessert goodies" should be a part of your daily life; demonizing them only leads to wanting more
-- the more you eat those things *while also* striving to connect with your body -- "how do I feel right now?" and "am I hungry now?" and "am I full now?" and "do I want to stop eating now?" -- the more you will attain an equilibrium that means you naturally balance diet without demonizing or avoiding any category of food.

So that's what I've been working on all year. It isn't easy for me, but I'm enjoying the process and I feel much better. I've gained a little weight but not as much as you might imagine. Meanwhile, all my metabolic testing shows that I'm healthier than I've ever been.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:50 AM on November 23 [24 favorites]

The concept of ultra-processed foods may be helpful to you. This PDF from the UN details what they are and how to identify them starting on page 10.

Under this classification, none of the items you list except the obvious ones are ultra-processed. There is some reasonable evidence that eating a lot of ultra-processed foods leads to increased weight gain relative to eating the same fats, sugars, etc from non-ultra-processed foods.

But there is no clear line between food that is unhealthy and healthy food. It's a continuum and it depends on how much you eat, what else you eat, when you eat it, your exercise habits, and many other factors. In general, if you want to eat healthier desserts: don't eat pre-packaged desserts, try to eat more fruit and less added sugar, try to eat more whole grains and less white flour (if you're making a cake or cookies, whole wheat pastry flour is a good substitute or try substituting part buckwheat) and try to eat smaller portions. Many people find that if they eat less sugar, they start to find less sweet things taste sweeter — but it can take a few weeks to adjust.

Fats are probably less of a concern, but if your cholesterol or triglycerides are high, you might want to reduce your consumption of butter, as it is mostly saturated fat. Recipes that can use liquid oils, like canola or olive oil, are the best, while other lower saturated fat options are lard (believe it or not), coconut oil and vegetable shortening or margarine (though there is quite a bit of debate over how healthy these are, since they use a lot of palm oil).

You can make a not too sweet olive oil and yogurt cake with whole wheat pastry flour, served with fresh pears, for example, which is probably significantly healthier for you than a cake from the grocery store.
posted by ssg at 9:54 AM on November 23 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Junk doesn't mean to me what it means to you. I think what you're doing is more a question of controlling the content and quality of what you eat.

When you get stuff from the supermarket, even baked goods, it will contain lower quality ingredients than you would use yourself,
and also ingredients that you would never use and don't necessarily understand (stabilisers and preservatives, for instance). It also uses manufacturing processes you're not confident about.

What I think you want to know is that what you are eating has only what you actively chose to put into it and it's made well. So you bake for yourself. This seems to be a perfectly reasoned approach to me.

If you do slip on the baked goods aisle instead of home baking I don't imagine that you're about to die of malic acid poisoning (*not a thing), and your diet is going to be no more or less balanced than it was if this subs in for your home baking portion, but in general you seem to have perfectly good reasons for making your own stuff in preference to eating theirs.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 9:59 AM on November 23 [7 favorites]

This question often came up in my ESL classes, in California. I would always cover both Junk Food and Fast Food by drawing a Venn diagram on the board and asking what goes on each side, and what's in the middle. Is there any healthy Fast Food, at the edge, not in the middle? Of course -‌- salads, even pizza (which, if done right isn't Fast Food IMO). But to answer the question, what is Junk Food, my answer is: You know that little store at the filling station? (Or maybe, it's not so small.) Almost everything for sale in there is Junk Food -- candy, donuts, chips, cookies, and soft drinks. Ice cream, as well (although I'd always note that Life would be so drab without that particular Junk Food).
posted by Rash at 10:01 AM on November 23 [1 favorite]

Better quality organic flours and so on will taste better, but high sugar low fiber foods will still spike your insulin regardless of the provenance of the ingredients.

If you want to feel virtuous when you eat dessert, reduce sugar by 1/3 to 1/2, add fiber and protein (flax, hemp seeds, etc) and use whole fruit instead of sauces. Plain yogurt and unsweetened applesauce are your friends here. Smaller serving sizes also go a long way to reducing dessert's effect on the waistline and blood sugar levels.
posted by ananci at 10:42 AM on November 23 [1 favorite]

If you're trying to avoid "junk" food (agree this is so subjective as to be meaningless) in an effort to lose weight, then baking and eating your own cakes and muffins will not be a huge improvement. (Or anyway, not in and of itself. However, I do find as someone who does most of her own baking, that the effort expended in the baking, storage, sharing, etc. of baked goods means I eat them more mindfully and less often.)

If you're trying to avoid it in a sense of avoiding unnecessary processing, excess sugar and sodium (as many processed goods contain higher amounts of sugar and sodium than their home versions), and low-quality ingredients or weird additives, then yes, everything you listed above would probably transcend your understanding of "junk."

But there's nothing about a machine doing the work that makes something less healthy, in and of itself, and there's no kind of dessert cake that is like, some kind of nutritional wonder. Organic (another word rendered so subjective under capitalism as to be meaningless) doesn't enter into it.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:49 AM on November 23 [2 favorites]

Throw out the idea of junk food. A protein cookie is nutritionally worse than a McDonald's cheeseburger. Eat whole foods, bake from whole ingredients, enjoy everything in moderation.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:50 AM on November 23 [6 favorites]

My take on this is that if I'm going to eat something I think I arguably shouldn't, it ought to be something I really enjoy. So a good while ago I resolved not to buy anything sweet from the supermarket; if I wanted something sweet, I could go out of my way to get it from a specialist shop, or I could bake it myself. I no longer stick to the rule as rigidly as I once did, but it was a good rule and saved me from a lot of disappointing cakes and hey-they-changed-the-recipe chocolate bars. And I got a lot more confident at baking, into the bargain. All of which is to say, I enthusiastically endorse your made-from-scratch baked goods idea.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 11:07 AM on November 23 [4 favorites]

Prior to vaccination, I baked most of our sweets, usually working from a sixties cookbook so nothing especially fancy, whole-wheat-y or studded with chia seeds. I can't tell you if home-made chocolate cake is junk, but I can tell you that as a household we could eat homemade stuff daily while losing weight or maintaining weight at desired levels. I worked the calories out a few times and it seems like homemade stuff is often less calorie-dense even when it's chocolate cake. My feeling is that if you like sweets a lot, keeping home-made stuff on hand is good, actually.
posted by Frowner at 11:17 AM on November 23 [2 favorites]

For me, junk food is anything actively engineered to make me brand-loyal. Because I'm ornery like that.

I bake & make my own stuff for a variety of reasons, but one of the main ones is to keep my food tasting like food/my food, with its own minor variations so that while I might crave it, it's the actual thing I'm craving and not the highly engineered combination of salt/sugar/fat in, say, Campbells Cream of Mushroom soup.

That said, if I'm tired out from staying up late roasting and pureeing my own pumpkin, I'm inclined to get on a cortisol streak and overeat carbs and feel more tired. So like, sometimes it's time to buy the factory-made pumpkin pie. It's a balance.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:48 AM on November 23 [3 favorites]

I often think about foods in terms of what they're instead of. Like if I were having a massive sweets craving, and I satisfied myself with a homemade applesauce muffin instead of a sleeve of Oreos, I'd feel I'd made a better choice. If I were hungry between meals and I reached for that applesauce muffin instead of an apple with almond butter, I'd feel I'd made a worse choice (though I wouldn't apply the particular term "junk food" to the muffin even then). I could make the applesauce muffin into a better choice (e.g., sub in more whole grains) or a worse one (e.g., bake on a sugary top), on a continuum. But there's not any one characteristic that could make it a categorically good or bad choice, because that depends on what I'm eating it instead of, and my goals.
posted by daisyace at 12:23 PM on November 23 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure this thread needs more answers, but I will throw in two things:

Merriam-Webster says:
1: food that is high in calories but low in nutritional content.
2: something that is appealing or enjoyable but of little or no real value video junk food.

forthright says:
1: food that I am apt to eat compulsively (often directly from the container) but which is so high in calories that only a high school athlete is really qualified to eat without regard to consequences
2: food which is so rich that even if I eat "only" one serving the result will be similar to the case 1 situation (e.g., very rich ethnic entrees)

Note however that there are things which I eat that some might consider junk food but (for me) are not compulsions and I can eat in modest portions, and are simple foods that satisfy me without a lot of sauces, cheeses, stuffings, etc. For example:
- Ben & Jerry ice cream (eat a third of the pint at a time)
- Microwaved chicken nuggets
- Tuna and light mayo in a tortilla wrap
- Toasted cinnamon Raisin bagels with margarine
- Protein bars
posted by forthright at 3:48 PM on November 23

To me, simply put, junk food is highly processed.

Twinkie? Junk food. Home made jelly roll? Not junk food, but dessert. McD’s chicken nuggets? Junk food. Breaded chicken tenders? Not junk food, just dinner.

But I subscribe to the “everything is fine in moderation” school of eating, so dessert is totally fine as are fried foods, fatty foods, salty foods, whatever. Preservatives/additives though, I feel, are best avoided as much as possible.
posted by lydhre at 4:44 PM on November 23

Consider calorie density vs. nutrition density. Krispy Kreme donuts are high-fat, high sugar, few vitamins, minerals, fiber, or other nutritional benefit. Doritos are high fat, high salt, highly processed, low nutrition. Pie has sugar, crust has white flour, fat, but the apples or pumpkin give a higher nutrition density. I try to reduce sugar, so I might have ginger snaps, gingerbread, and sometimes I go for cookies or a brownie. Dried apricots are really sweet and have a lot of nutritional value. For me, eating sweets calibrates my taste buds for more sweets, in a not-scientific way, just how I think of it.

There's a useful link in a post I made recently.
posted by theora55 at 5:29 PM on November 23

Since it's hard to define junk food, perhaps you can think in terms of what you should have rather than what you should avoid. My approach would involve rules like:

No cookie is acceptable unless the flour is 50% whole wheat, or the cookie contains an approved ingredient such as nuts.

Cake must be served in the smallest portions that are not actually insultingly skimpy. If possible, replace 50% of the fat/oil with applesauce.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:05 PM on November 23

Thinking it over, I have a new definition, for me, personally: if the first ingredient listed (which, therefore, the food contains the most of) is Sugar, it's Junk Food. Other things may also qualify, because of processing (chemicals), salt, and/or high fat content, but if it's mostly sugar (or corn syrup, whatever) it's junk.
posted by Rash at 8:14 PM on November 23

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