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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 November 2006, 18:48 GMT
Is this what you call junk food?
Hamburgers are seen as the archetypal 'junk food'

By Brendan O'Neill

Junk food is rarely out of the news these days, but the tag seems to be applied very selectively. So do we really know what is good and bad for us?

You can't open a newspaper or switch on the box without hearing about the latest initiative to wean young people in particular off "junk food" and on to healthier foodstuffs.

Last week, the Office for Communications (Ofcom) unveiled plans to ban ads for junk food during TV programmes aimed at kids.

That followed hot on the heels of the government's clampdown in September on the sale of chocolate, crisps, the fizzy stuff (cola, lemonade, etc) and "low-quality meat" in schools across the nation.

An overweight man
Obesity to a growing problem
Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education, announced that all schools would have to stop preparing and selling meals consisting of junk food.

But what exactly is junk food? It's widely believed that the phrase was coined by Michael Jacobson, director of the American Center for Science in the Public Interest, in 1972.

For most people, the phrase conjures up images of hamburgers, pizzas, chips and sweets.

For the Food Standards Agency - from which both the government and Ofcom got their definition of junk food - it is any food high in fat, salt or sugar.

So why are some fatty foods defined as "junk", but others are not? Government ministers and celebrity chefs look down their noses at French fries (which in McDonald's contain about 5g of fat), and at the same time think nothing of tucking into a dish like duck a l'orange (which can contain 15 to 20g of fat in a single serving).

And why are some food outlets, such as McDonald's or Domino's Pizza, labelled as "junk", while others that serve similar dishes, like posh burger bars or Pizza Express, are seen as being acceptable and trendy, and possibly even healthy?

Using figures from Calorie King [see Internet links on right], we compared the nutritional content of dishes served in various high street restaurant chains and discovered that the label "junk food" is used selectively indeed.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a portion of chickenburger with chips from the Nando's restaurant group contains 36.9g of fat and 1,029 calories. These figures do not apply to Nando's in the UK but were taken from the Nando's Australia website. In the UK the figures are lower (for example fat content is 22.2g). We recognise that this was misleading and apologise for the error.


Half an American Hot
507 calories
17.7g fat
59.4g carbs
Half an American Hot
517 calories
13.2g fat
68.6g carbs

Pizzas are viewed differently, depending on where you eat them. Domino's Pizza, for example, is considered by many to be "junk food", while Pizza Express, beloved of the middle classes, is seen as healthy Italian grub.

Healthy Italian grub?
So the new rules announced by Ofcom last week will mean that Domino's Pizza will have to stop sponsoring The Simpsons on Sky One.

There is little real difference in terms of nutritional content between an outlet like Domino's and the fashionable minimalist restaurants of Pizza Express.

For example, half an American Hot pizza in Pizza Express has more calories and more carbohydrates, while one in Domino's has slightly more fat.


Hamburger and strawberry milkshake
640 calories
18g fat
Hamburger and strawberry milkshake
1,104 calories
31.8g fat

McDonald's, the most famous sellers of hamburgers, is seen by some as the archetypal "junk food" outlet. Yet other, trendier burger bars often serve fattier dishes.

McDonald's has become more open about its nutritional content. Its leaflet, Our Food, Nutrition and You, was on prominent display in the two restaurants I visited.

McDonald's have salads now
By contrast, the manager of The Ultimate Burger in London - one of a clutch of upmarket burger restaurants to open in recent years - was unable to provide nutritional info. Various gastropubs also had no information about their burgers and fries.

Ed's Easy Diner, however, a 50s-style outlet with branches around the capital, was able to provide info on its burgers and shakes - and they contain more fat than McDonald's fare.

Ed's classic hamburger and strawberry milkshake contains more calories and fat than the same meal in McDonald's.

Aesthetic appeal

Why does the "junk food" tag seem to be applied selectively, and often to food outlets in urban and suburban areas but not to those in leafier parts? Is there some snobbery at play here?

According to Peter Marsh, of the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, which studies food and obesity issues, the term "junk" has become "simply a matter of aesthetics", a way of disapproving of certain foods.

"Some may argue that it is a matter of content levels of fat, sugar and salt," he says. "But in that case, foie gras, Iles Flotants, most pates and so on are also junk."

Johan Koeslag, a professor of medical physiology in South Africa, says junk food has become an "empty" phrase.

He points out that French fries are seen as "junk food", but roast potatoes are not. Bread is a basic foodstuff, but biscuits are "junk". The sugar in cake is detrimental to health, but the sugar in honey and grapes is not.

"The adjective 'junk' [is] unfortunate, if not outright misleading," he says.

Perhaps it is time we junked the "junk food" tag, and thought up better ways to define food.

Send in your comments using the form below.

Fast food outlet burgers will have less calories and fat because they are far smaller. They don't properly constitute a full meal and are often eaten as snacks.
Robin, Edinburgh

I am a chef by trade and feel that another word is very misleading and is worthless, but is seen as being good and that is fresh. Is it freshly made, fresh ingredients, but made last week? How fresh is fresh - picked last year or two days ago? What does the word mean in food?
Francis Gerald, Worcester

To my mind junk food is anything made with poor quality ingredients and stuffed with all manner of otherwise unnecessary additives. On this basis many supposedly 'healthy' low-fat, low-sugar foods are actually junk, with modified starch, artificial sweeteners and the like added to take the place of what's been left out. To eat well all that's needed is real food, made with a range of good quality ingredients, consumed in sensible quantities. As the old adage goes, "all things in moderation".
Phil, Romford, Essex

Eating a 2,000 calorie double-chicken burger on a one-off trip to a restaurant isn't going to make you unhealthy or obese, but eat it three of four times a week from a conveyor belt outlets on the High Street and it will. The problem is making people aware of their RDA of fat, salt and calories so they can budget for these meals accordingly.
Pete Brooksbank, Nottingham

A Big Mac every once in a while, or indeed a creme brulee, is not going to hurt, but it's excess - the pathology of our society in general that is damaging. The junk label is a lot to do with snobbery and class. Notice that expensive, unhealthy food is never labelled junk.
Gus Swan, London, UK

I enjoyed this article but I think the author cherry picked a definition of junk food. For many of us junk food in addition to being high in sugar, fat, and carbohydrates is also food that is mass-produced and cheap. Labels which do not apply to canard a l'orange and fois gras.
SC, Fairfax, US

Perhaps its time people used their brains rather than relied on someone tagging food as "junk". The majority of the British public are not so thick that they cannot figure out that a burger from McDonald's is similarly high in fat to one from a gastro-pub or other outlet, albeit that you are paying 2x or 3x as much for the latter.
Fat Dave, Cheshire

Perhaps we're concentrating too much on the food and not enough on exercise and activity. I used to stand up for most of the working day and although not "fit" did at least get some exercise. Since changing jobs I now sit down in front of a PC for most of the day and my weight has soared. My diet hasn't really changed.
Ian Leonard, Pewsey, Wiltshire

It's not the fat content. It's the type of fat.
Johnny Smith, Toronto

Your article tells only a small part of the story. In your comparisons you haven't made any distinction between different types of fats (saturated, unsaturated, trans-fats etc), the availability of healthy options, fresh fruit and vegetables, the levels of salt and sugar in the foods you've examined...
Richard, Birmingham, UK

Labels will always have to be applied. It is easy and convenient to apply the term junk food and to demonise its providers. Your findings do not surprise me. What really is 'healthy' food anyway? It is balance in life that is important. Plus of course exercise, which is sadly lacking for many people today.
Ian Parry, Urmston, Manchester, England

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