Junk Yard Sexy (Blue & Red)

Junk Food: Trash or Treasure?

Junk food brings life to the thought that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In fact, the origin of that idiomatic phrase — from Chamber’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Arts in 1879 —  relates it back to food:

Truly, as one man’s meat is another man’s poison, so one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure.

UK Traffic Light LabelingAnd so it is with junk food. By definition it’s bad. And everyone seems to think that they know junk food when they see it. But consensus on a practical definition, easily understood by the masses, is tough to achieve. Front-of-pack traffic light food labels represent one proposal to help consumers easily recognize foods with low nutritional quality. However, resistance from the food industry has been fierce. After pushing very hard on this proposal in the UK, health regulators began voluntary implementation last summer. Providing evidence of how hard progress in this realm is, the European Commission is investigating complaints that this voluntary labeling is “influencing consumer choice.” Oh dear!

Facts Up Front LabelIn the U.S., the Grocery Manufacturers Association has kept such labeling proposals at bay by preempting them with their own Facts Up Front system. The label is free of any qualitative suggestions about junk food status. The label just delivers lots of information and the opportunity to call out helpful nutrients for health claims. It’s a great formula for getting consumers to glaze over and go for the Sugar Smacks.

Meanwhile the American Society for Nutrition has published a scientific statement pointing out some obvious truths about nutrition quality and processed foods:

Both fresh and processed foods make up vital parts of the food supply. Processed food contributes to both food security (ensuring that sufficient food is available) and nutrition security (ensuring that food quality meets human nutrient needs).

Diets are more likely to meet food guidance recommendations if nutrient-dense foods, either processed or not, are selected.

As if to prove the lack of consensus on this subject, David Katz both condemns and concedes a role for processed foods in his criticism of the ASN statement:

At the extreme, these are foods that all but glow in the dark. On the other hand, cooking, freezing, drying, and fermenting are also forms of processing, making grilled salmon, frozen peas, dried figs, and organic plain yogurt “processed foods” too. So much depends on just what we mean.

There is a rational argument here that we should do the best we can with the food supply we’ve got, and not make perfect the enemy of good.

Connie Weaver, lead author on the scientific statement, summarized the state of affairs well, saying:

A lack of standard definitions for various levels of processed foods has been a big part of the conflicts and issues surrounding processed foods to date.

We make a call in the paper that stakeholders need to work out these definitions. Until people can talk using a common language, they end up not talking. If we can sort through the issues that turn off the dialog, then we can get to our goal of improving the health of the food supply for Americans and beyond.

Click here to read the ASN scientific statement on processed food and here to read more about the debate it provoked.

Junk Yard Sexy (Blue & Red), photograph © tanakawho / flickr. From a series of found art from the junkyard.

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2 Responses to “Junk Food: Trash or Treasure?”

  1. July 29, 2014 at 8:32 am, Robyn Flipse said:

    Once again, the importance of “The Total Diet” gets lost in the debate over food processing and singling out the “good” and the “bad” foods.

    • July 29, 2014 at 10:19 am, Ted said:

      Thanks for this important reminder, Robyn.