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Last Updated: Monday, 3 October 2005, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
Is junk food a myth?
By Brendan O'Neill

Schools have just 12 months to wipe their lunch menus of junk food under a new pledge to improve nutritional standards. But what exactly is junk food? A controversial new book argues there is no such thing. No foods are intrinsically bad, it says.

Ruth Kelly, the secretary of state for education, has launched something of a jihad against junk food.

At the Labour Party conference last week she made an impassioned promise that foods high in fat, salt or sugar will be taken off the menus and removed from vending machines in schools across England.

"The scandal of junk food served every day in school canteens must end," said Ms Kelly, to rapturous applause from fellow Labour delegates. "We will ban poor quality processed bangers and burgers being served in schools from next September."

In place of the greasy chips, fleshy burgers and sorry excuses for sausages that those of us schooled in the 1980s and 90s remember - and the turkey twizzlers and reheated pizza slices fed to the latest generation, as exposed by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver in his TV show "Jamie's School Dinners" - kids will be offered healthier alternatives: salads, freshly cooked pasta dishes, dried fruit and the like.

The aim, says Ms Kelly, is to ensure that children have "healthy options throughout the school day", as a means of keeping them alert and ready to learn rather than sluggish (after consuming a fatty meal) or hyper (after downing a couple of cans of the fizzy stuff).

Jamie Oliver
The chips are down for fatty foods in school
Schools will not only be "advised" to serve up healthier dishes: they will receive extra funding to enable them to do so - with the daily budget per child rising from around 37p to 50p or 60p - and will find their food standards being monitored by Ofsted school inspectors.

And on Saturday Ms Kelly warned that school governors who continue to serve junk food once the ban comes into force could receive a criminal record. They will be "open to the same sanctions as anyone else who breaks the law." She is clearly serious about junking junk food in schools.

Anyone who remembers the horrors of cold spam, lumpy mash and pink custard (what was that stuff?) will surely welcome Ms Kelly's efforts to make school menus more varied, nourishing and junk-free.

But what exactly is "junk food"? How is it defined and who decides? Why are fatty fries and burgers served up in school canteens and fast-food restaurants referred to as "junk", but not those fatty dishes available in the finest restaurants in the land, such as foie gras (of which about 80 per cent is fat) or duck l'orange (duck being one of the fattiest birds we consume)?

My dictionary defines junk as "useless, discarded articles; rubbish; nonsense". So is junk food therefore useless, and rubbish?

Where's the beef?

There are some who challenge the definition "junk food", and claim that the phrase is used as a moral judgement on certain people's lifestyles rather than as a strictly scientific category.

There is no such thing as junk food, but there is such a thing as a 'junk diet'
Vincent Marks

Vincent Marks, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Biochemistry at the University of Surrey and co-editor of a new book titled Panic Nation: Unpicking the Myths We're Told About Food and Health, goes so far as to claim that there is no such thing as junk food.

"Junk food is an oxymoron," he says. "Food is either good - that is, it is enjoyable to eat and will sustain life - or it is good food that has gone bad, meaning that it has deteriorated and gone off.

"To label a food as 'junk' is just another way of saying, 'I disapprove of it.' There are bad diets - that is, bad mixtures and quantities of food - but there are no 'bad foods' except those that have become bad through contamination or deterioration."

Professor Marks says that all foods - whether the dreaded twizzler or a freshly picked apple - are just combinations of protein, fat and carbohydrates, and our bodies will take from them what we need and get rid of the rest. "Even hamburgers provide energy in a palatable and affordable form," he argues.

Deadly sin

"No food is 'better for us' than any other; it all depends upon circumstances. For people on a limited income or in times of famine, high energy density food is best and will enable survival. For the affluent and in times of plenty - like now in the UK - fruit is an important part of a mixed diet," says Professor Marks.

Foie Gras
At 80% fat, should foie gras be classified as junk food?

He says we should focus less on individual foodstuffs and more on diet.

"There is no such thing as junk food, but there is such a thing as a 'junk diet'. The quantity of food consumed, over say a weekly period, is just as important as its quality."

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, a GP in Hackney, writer for The Lancet and author of The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle, says that eating junk food has become one of the great sins of our times.

"Gluttony used to be one of the seven deadly sins; now eating junk food invites moral opprobrium.

"Society seeks to regulate lifestyle through promoting fears of disease and death. Diet is an ideal focus for such a programme because of its historic association with health and wellbeing and its centrality to human life," says Dr Fitzpatrick.

Dr Ian Campbell, President of the National Obesity Forum, says that is a load of stuff and nonsense.

"There is no doubt that foods which are high in fat, high in sugar and high in salt are unhealthy", he says.

"There is an issue with how to define 'junk food' and I'm sure we'll never get it absolutely right, but food products that reach certain benchmarks - meaning they have unacceptable amounts of fat or 'added sugar' - are rightly seen as being unhealthy.

Obesity is down to junk diets, rather than specific foods, says Mr Marks
"Common sense tells us what is a healthy alternative over an unhealthy one, and that certain sugary or salty foods are unhealthier than others."

The National Obesity Forum campaigns to raise awareness about the impact of the growing obesity epidemic on the British public and the NHS.

And Dr Campbell says "the evidence that high-fat, high-sugar foods contribute to obesity - which is a serious problem in children as well as in adults - is absolutely clear."

He says we should welcome Ruth Kelly's forthcoming ban on junk food in schools.

"This is a great opportunity for schools to lead by example; to not only teach kids about health and nutrition but to actually provide it to them. That will go some way to reducing children's consumption of foods that are - as a matter of fact - not very good for them."

Add your comments to this story using the form below:

Having suffered the hell that is "lunchtime activities" in school, I'd have thought a higher priority would have been to ensure that all pupils are actually able to *get* a meal. I would often find myself arriving for lunch at a not unreasonable time, to be told they were no longer serving. Then the only option was to turn to the vending machines. Until schools can see that some of their own activities are preventing children from leading a healthy lifestyle, I fail to see how changing the menu can possibly help. It seems like the government is ignoring those who want to engage in extra-curricular activities and are instead catering for the masses to look good.
Paul, England

As another person says it is the quality of the ingredients not the items themselves. Burgers are not intrinsically bad if they are made of good quality mince with the bare minimum added then they are very good for you, the same goes for sausages. I think we can all agree that reconstituted meat is junk and should be treated as such. It is what is left of poor quality meat when the cuts people actually want have been taken so it is the rubbish left on rubbish meat.
Gemma, UK

I think some people are missing the point of this a little. Yes, its nice to eat a blanced diet full of fruit, vegetables & fish, but what really matters is that you get your 2500-ish calories a day in some form or other. Actual malnutriton is far more common in Britain than you'd think & many Brits aren't getting the basic requirements to maintain health. Address this first before worrying about kids eating a chocolate bar.
Peter, Nottingham

The prof has a point. a diet that was based on 100% fruit would be a junk diet given that it would largely lack fat, protein, salt etc - all essentials for sustaining healthy life. If a diet was otherwise lacking in fat then fatty food would not be junk food, it would be an essential.
Jonathan Laird, UK

The original "hamburger" was developed in England by a physician, who thought that mincing the meat (beef) would make it more digestible for invalids (and people without teeth). These meat patties caught on, no more so than in Hamburg. They were very quick to cook and considered nutritious and became known as a Hamburger. The differences are- the way livestock was reared and the absence of additives. If a real hamburger is treated as a meal, fine- as part of a balanced diet. As a snack- lethal. And yes, exercise does play a major part in the fight against obesity, so lets have more of those schoolchildren running around their sports grounds.
Eric, UK

It is all a conspiracy by the food Nazis. Never have I heard of such an unscientific approach to anything than the `junk' spouted by these stick-thin dieticians. Common sense is all anyone needs.
Phil, UK

Surely the food we consume is more dependant on our personal economic situation than on our dietary needs or knowledge. With just a few pounds or even pennies in our pockets we're not going to eat freshly prepared, organic meals, so please stop labelling food as junk just because it's cheap.
Steve Morton, UK

There is no such thing as unhealthy food, only unhealthy diets. Nothing is bad for you unless eaten too often or without eating a balance of other foods too.
Ian, UK

I know someone who ate an apple a day. The acid has erroded his front teeth down to stubs. If we over simplify the issue we could end up exchanging one set of problems for another.
Peter, UK

Moderation and Exercise. Teach it.

Personally, I think there is no such thing as junk food, what we term junk food is simply popular foods such as burgers and fries which the majority of the public enjoy... in excess that is. I agree ALL foods are nutritional, but when a person has an unbalanced diet and eats mainly the same type of food and lacks other nutrients, of course it is unhealthy.
CP Lee, Wales, UK

We can all use semantics to say black is white and vice versa, it's proven on many a TV courtroom drama, but just once in a blue moon it would be nice to see common sense employed, especially from an educator. Words are alive, their meanings changing, and best of all we get artistic license.
James, Japan

Food, by definition, is nutritious therefore there can be no such thing as "junk" food. A diet that is, constantly, high in sugars or lipids etc is a bad diet and neds to be modified. Leave the term "junk" food to those politicians/food police who, because they know different, are simply reading the words of their advisors.
Bill Convery, England

Dr Campbell fails to understand the bigger picture. He would, I am sure, say, "all TV pictures are just red, green and blue flashing lights". Whilst this is true, it simply misses the point. Just defining anything with nutrients in it is food ignores human desire, mood and pleasure can influence food intake. Has the doctor heard of linguistics or psychology?
Brian Butterworth, UK

So many people repeating what they have read without understanding any of it. It IS having a a mixed and balanced diet which is important. Almost all of the "junk foods" being mentioned are good for you when eaten in moderation. Fruits and other "healthy" foods are just as bad for you if eaten to excess.
David, England

Is anybody out there able to state exactly which glycerides, saccharides and amino acids are the "junk" ones?
Oliver, Canada

Sensible thinking. If you exercise 5 hours a day then it doesnt matter what you eat, you'll stay healthy. Its your whole lifestyle that matters, not just your food intake. However one must applaud the government for taking a stand on junk food, exercise may be more important but at least school diet is one thing that can be far more easily regulated. Even from a taste standpoint its a good idea, food always tastes better when you have a varied diet. So you may not be eating those burgers and cakes so much, but when you do have them they will be delicious!
Thomas, UK

Producing processed food is a high margin business. The origin of the term 'junk food' was used to describe food that is low in nutritional value, but high in low-cost fillers, such as fats and sugars. Some fillers can be healthy, such as soy, but the flavour is not particularly appealing. It doesn't make good business sense to make food more nutritional if this drives up the cost of manufacturing the product, thus reducing the profit margin. I wonder how many CEOs of companies that produce processed foods actually eat their own products?
Mark, Spain

I agree that it is a good thing to have a healthy menu available however my children will refuse to eat school cooked vegetables because of the way they have been ruined by being over cooked and kept too long in warming pans. I know that they get a balanced diet overall because when at home they do eat all their vegetables (and mine as well given half a chance) and fruit. I would rather they snack on "junk food" than go without because of the way "proper food" has been prepared.
Dave Walker, UK

If I could get a serving of foie gras for the same price as a burger, I would probably class it in the same category. It's not an individual foodstuff, nor an individual meal that's the problem, it's the overall eating habit.
Paul, UK

Does anyone else think that 60p for a school meal is pitiful? The food that constitutes one of the main meals of the day and is supposed to sustain them through the rest of the day equates the pay of a teacher for only a couple of minutes. This seems crazy!
Russell, UK

Most of the issues here surround the fact that a lot of people do not understand nutrition. Calories are NOT bad...a calorie is a unit of energy and the average male needs around 2500Kcals a day. It's more about BALANCE of foods eaten. High sugar, fat etc is only bad if you consume too much of it. Education and moderation is what's needed; not a blatant rejection of certain produce.
Allan, England

Perhaps the definition of junk food should refer primarily to 'cheap' food. For example, five pieces of fresh, good quality fruit from a high street supermarket will cost you around 2.50 (I bought 5 fresh apples this lunchtime for 2.62). On the other hand, a truly staggering sized bag of re-heated chips, complete with 2 burgers, a battered sausage (made of goodness-knows what) and a can of fizzy sugar-water was available from the kebab house next door for only 2.35 - if you're on a budget which of those two choices are you likely to make?
Steve Dalzell, England

Hurrah for Professor Marks! At last someone making the point that is not individual foods that are bad but the diet they form part of. I am constantly amazed at friends and work colleagues lack of knowledge of basic nutrition facts. At least if Food & Nutrition becomes part of the school curriculum again (should never have been removed!) this should help to give people at the very least a basic understanding.
Cathy, UK

He's spot on. The key to eating healthily is simply NOT to eat UNhealthily. That means to balance all the food groups in the correct way and to eat no more than the correct amount of calories. Stick to a balanced diet and you will be disgustingly healthy without having to touch the cliche "healthy foods". Within this, you can eat anything you like - the "Balanced diet" bit means that you get the fruit and veg etc.
Stephen, UK

The comments I have seen so far show how indoctrinated we have become by the term "junk food". When I eat a slice of cake once in a week, call it junk food if you like, but it doesn't make me or my diet unhealthy. The obsession with every single piece of food has blinded us to the fact that we are unhealthy and overweight because we are too inactive and consume too many calories in some form or other. I claim back the right to eat some foods with lots of fat and sugar as part of a balanced diet.
Ian Nartowicz, England

The writer asks a good question. What was that pink custard ??
Kieran O'Brien, england

Imbalanced over-fatty foods fed day in, day out are as damaging as food that has gone off so it's time for Prof Marks to stop seeking publicity off the back of the school dinners disgrace, and get sense of perspective. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but anyone in tune with reality as opposed to publicity will undertstand the concepts here.
Chandra, England

Fruits are important for everyone at ALL times. By omission I assume that Marks does not regard fruits as being important for people of a low income, a view shared by most food retailers. I is nearly always more difficult to buy fruit and vegetables (compared with say crisps and other snacks) in low income areas such as council estates. This is most unfortunate, because as any doctor can tell you, fruits play a most important part in our diet.
Davian, England

It's had to believe that people in this world can talk of "junk food or diets" when majority of people in Africa hardly have choices. In southern province of Zambia, rural children only take home boiled maize grit which has some local roots added as their food drink. his is commonly called "chibwantu" it's a local brew to help children sustain their energy. It's heart breaking to see people in developed countries make choices when majority of African children are barely surviving.
Mrs HK Chirwa, Zambia

Saying that there is no such thing as junk food only a junk diet is like saying there is no such thing as taking a single step only walking a mile. Professor Marks is correct that the concentration should be on overall diet not on specific foodstuffs, however ultimately people eat meals and out of those individual meals a diet is built. To be practical advice must allow people to make good choices about each meal.
Jack, England

The school exists to educate; education should be about all aspects of life. So introducing children to a variety of food dishes from other cultures, healthy eating, and even table manners should represent part of the school curriculum. However, part of this education should also be about moderation and reward and I don't see why schools shouldn't be able to serve burgers and chips at all. The problem is not with burgers and chips (a very healthy diet) but with the quality of the ingredients schools use. A BBC programme showed that school sausages were of a lower quality (less meat, more fat) than prison or hospital food.
Geoffrey Roberts, UK

And yet there certainly are foods that are bad for you: trans-fatty acids raise LDL cholesterol levels and lower HDL cholesterol levels, and they stick around in your body; high-fructose corn syrup shuts down appetite inhibitors, behaves more like fat than sugar once ingested, pushes up triglyceride levels, impairs glucose tolerance (so may cause diabetes), and alters magnesium levels in the body. Not good. Basically, if it's high in nutrition and low in bad side-effects, I'd call it "good food"; vice versa, that's junk.
Kaz, Briton in NJ, USA

"There is no such thing as junk food, but there is such a thing as a 'junk diet'" By the professor's own words junk food does exist - it is the foods found dominating junk diets.
Tim Green, UK

The main problem in implementing changes to the school menu is the misconception that there is a black and white distinction between healthy and unhealthy food. To make things worse the 'healthy' foods are generally thought to be dull, low fat and low taste! The real distinction is between healthy and unhealthy lifestyles. The French have historically had low rates of obesity and heart disease, yet French cuisine typically includes plenty of high-fat food. The emphasis however is on quality and not quantity.
S Smith, Buckingham

Dr Fitzpatrick's argument is sound, but rather academic. Junk food, junk diet? Sounds like Angels on the head of a pin! As he points out, the reality is that we live in a time of plenty in the UK. And most don't exercise enough. In these circumstances; high fat, high sugar, high salt and low fibre foods should be considered as junk since they will promote obesity, heart disease etc.
John Franklin, UK

Some of the "experts" are talking semantics here... We all know what junk foods are: high in fat, sugar, calories but low in essential minerals and fibre. Consumption of these foods every day, as many people do, leads to all sorts of obvious health problems including constipation, poor skin condition and of course, coupled with lack of exercise, obesity. It's not helpful to attempt to portray the label as some sort of politically-incorrect judgement on the poor. Much more useful would be to suggest how those on a limited budget can improve their diet.
John Cahill, UK

I agree that the dietary habits of people need to be addressed, but surely its nit-picking to say that there is no such thing as junk food? That's simply a term used to describe food of low quality, or high in salts/fats, sugars, etc - and usually artificial. If we go along this route we'll just start adopting American terminology - what a burger going to described as - "a reformed patty of bovine flesh (20%) with added salts, sugars and rusk (30%) and artificially added bovine insulatory flesh (fat) (40%), additionally seasoning include - processed and bleached salt crystals, processed white pepper from black corns, of EU origin, non-organic onion (from EU sources - and sprayed with chemicals and fertilisers) + dried herbs of mixed EU origin (processed and added during patty construction"......please, its a burger !!!
Grant, London

At last, some common sense on the subject from Prof Marks. How can the politicians encourage such debate when they have exacerbated the problem themselves through years of neglect and not encouraging more sport and exercise!
Paul Raymonf, England

Duck a l'orange and foie gras are not served in school canteens; commentators should stick to common sense about the term junk food rather than semantic nitpicking. Good to see the government finally responding, even if it has taken a celebrity chef to get them to act.
Peter, England

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