In the 70s a kid might have been treated to junk food on a few really special occasions: Halloween, birthdays, maybe Christmas. In 2012, junk food is the stuff you see people grabbing at the drugstore checkout. You know, the drugstore, where you go to buy stuff to make you healthy?
Junk food also includes all the store-bought cakes, candies, ice cream and other “treats” we dump into our shopping carts and mindlessly munch on while we’re watching TV or sitting bored at work.
What is all this mindless eating of items we can’t identify doing to us? Time to find out.
What’s In It?
This is a tough question to answer comprehensively, since so much of what’s in junk food is a mystery. But there are a few key ingredients you should know about.
1. Trans Fat: These are a couple of trans fat marketing slogans I just came up with:
- Trans Fat: The Worst Kind Of Fat
- Trans Fat: Slightly Better Than Poison
- Trans Fat: It Might Not Kill You
Acutally, those last two are probably not true.
This is how trans fat works. It goes in through your mouth and parties in your arteries, while you slowly die (or quickly, if you have a sudden heart attack or stroke). I jest, but the point is, trans fat is something you should never ingest.
Many food companies have been moving away from using trans fat because of public outcry (go, the public!), but it can still be found in cakes, cookies, chips, fries, frozen foods, cake mixes, frosting, margarine, granola bars, microwave popcorn, ice cream… sigh.
Bonus fact: If a food has less than 0.5g of trans fat per serving, it’s perfectly legal (in the US at least) to put “0 grams of trans fat” on the label. Thanks for protecting our health, FDA! So, the easiest way to avoid it is to just not eat processed foods. But if you must, at least check for trans fat’s various pseudonyms, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, vegetable shortening, or shortening, on the ingredients list.
2. Additives (aka Unpronouncables): Much like Elvis, additives are everywhere. Here’s how the FDA puts it:
Without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown, margarine wouldn’t be yellow and mint ice cream wouldn’t be green. Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat.
And they say this like it’s a good thing. It’s not.
The big problem with additives is, we just don’t know exactly what additives are doing to us. Studies have linked additives to everything from nausea and migraines to ADHD, obesity, and cancer. But those studies have mostly been deemed “inconclusive” by the FDA. The FDA is, of course, under immense pressure from the companies that profit from additive-making and selling.
We can’t really trust the science or the government to tell us what’s OK and what’s not. Both have been known to be wrong–a lot. So we need to trust our own common sense.
If someone handed you a brightly colored item (not resembling any naturally-occurring food) and said “I’m not sure what’s in this or if it will give you cancer, but would you like to eat it?”, you’d probably say no. But when the junk food industry makes us the same offer, we gobble it up without a second thought.
All I’m saying here is: maybe it’s time to think twice.
3. Sugars and fats: Junk foods are notorious for their ability to deliver a zillion empty calories made up of sugar and fat without bothering with any of that silly stuff like protein, fibre, or vitamins. These empty calories go in, but they don’t make you feel full. In fact, they just make you crave more of the same.
Studies show that the same reward centers are activated when we do hard drugs or when we eat fatty and sugary foods. It can be as hard to kick junk food as it is to kick cigarettes or cocaine.
Make you wonder why we ever take that first bite, doesn’t it?
Is It Bad For The Environment?
Spoiler alert!! Yes, junk food is bad for the environment. Really bad.
1. The Cornconomy: Let’s start with corn. Corn corn, everywhere corn.
In the form of corn sugar (aka HFCS), corn meal, corn starch, corn flour, corn oil, maltodextrin, and more, corn is in almost everything you might consider junk food. In fact, it is often the main ingredient in junk food.
And before you ask if that means Doritos are a great way to get your veggies, please be informed that corn is not a vegetable. It’s a grain. And once the food industry gets their hands on it, any nutritional benefits have been wrung clean out of it.
But it’s really more accurate to think of corn as a commodity, an industry.
Industrial corn––80 million acres of it in the US––is grown in great swathes of pesticide-soaked monoculture. Of that 80 million acres, 85% is GMO.
Oh, and we don’t really know what the effects will be down the road. Environment Canada’s website tells us:
Environmental scientists do not yet know what long-term impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem function could result from dispersing GMOs and related products such as herbicides and Bt toxins.
We do know that GMO farming has managed to create a whole new crop of super weeds and super bugs. To fight these pesticide-resistant pests the same companies that forced the GMOs on us in the first place create more expensive and increasingly strong pesticides. Farmers have to spend more to get the same results and the farmland grows more toxic each year.
Meanwhile, GMOs have not been shown to increase yield. So what are they good for? Absolutely nothing (except pure corporate profits).
2. Piles of Petroleum Packaging: I wrote about the devastating effects fast food packaging is having on our forests in Should I Eat This? Part One: Fast Food. Fast food packages are mostly made of paper, but junk food packaging is predominately petroleum–based.
Since we have so much extra petroleum sitting around, we can totally afford to just throw a bunch of it away. According to Captain Charles Moore in this amazing TED video about The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the amount of plastic we recycle is “diddly point squat”. Most of it ends up in Wall-E style garbage piles, on islands of trash, or out in the middle of the ocean.
3. Waste for Nothing: Since junk foods don’t provide anything in the way of nutrition, they don’t *do* anything except briefly taste yummy and wreck your health (and pour billions of dollars into the coffers of corporations). So 100% of the environmental effects of creating them––from the pesticides and water used in the fields, to the petroleum needed to manufacture and transport, to the garbage from packaging––is all completely unnecessary.
I’ll say that again. It is all completely unnecessary.
We talked about empty calories before––these are empty carbon units. Burned natural resources and mountains of pollution for no benefit whatsoever. Meanwhile, there are real concerns about worldwide food shortages and a scarcity of arable lands.
What would happen if instead of growing GMO corn and soy for our daily Cheeto fix, we started growing actual food?
What Else Should I Know?
1. You are being lobbied to death. Junk food has its own lobbying group, The Snack Food Association, who represent themselves as “the voice for the snack food industry before government”.
The SFA also “promote increased snack consumption” to an already obese population *and* they run the yearly snacking convention, SNAXPO. No really, I’m not making this shit up.
In addition to all these other laudable duties:
SFA serves as an industry voice for snack foods by promoting snacking as a fun and wholesome activity…
Wait. Wholesome? As in “conducive to or suggestive of good health and physical well-being” wholesome? The very opposite of what snack food is and does? Yup.
(It makes you fat and then it kills you. Surprise!)
But just in case anyone were to actually believe the propaganda coming out of the corn lobby, the heavyweight sugar lobby is there to combat it. The American Sugar Alliance help make sure that Americans continue to get 22% of their calories from completely unnecessary added sweeteners.
Should I Eat Junk Food?
Hardly ever to never
There is really no reason for junk food to exist, except for that fleeting sense of fun you have while eating it. Still, it’s not going to kill you if you eat it like a 70s kid––maybe a bit on your birthday and a little at Halloween.
If you’re thinking right now that giving up junk food will sap all the joy out of your life, it’s time to take a good long look at your life. I hope you can find some ways to bring yourself real joy, instead of the fleeting heart-attack inducing kind you get from chips.
What Can I Eat Instead?
The great news is there are lots of yummy things you can eat that won’t kill you.
Not to be confused with candy bars, good quality chocolate is like wine or coffee; the more chocolate you sample, the more you cultivate a taste for it. Look for dark or bittersweet chocolate that contains only cacao, sugar, cacao butter, and lecithin. Keep trying different flavors and types until you develop your own favorites.
I’m a big fan of Endangered Species chocolate who work to keep their end-to-end operations ethical and sustainable.
Yep, nuts contain a lot of fat and a lot of calories. They’re also packed with protein and fibre, so a small handful will make you feel full for hours. Almonds, walnuts, and cashews are some of the healthiest varieties, and if you want to be super-healthy go for unsalted.
Delicious, filling, and packed full of antioxidants, popcorn is by far my favorite snack food. Of course, you’re not going to want to pop a pesticidey GMO variety and don’t get the highly wasteful chemical-dependent microwave kind please!
Plain popcorn is healthiest (but not that yummy), so skip the butter and add a little olive oil, salt and spices (dill, curry powder, or cinnamon). Or top it with nutritional yeast for a B12 boost.
Craving a sugary snack? Eat any piece of fruit to fill you up and kill the craving. I recommend frequent visits to the farmers market or subscribing to a CSA to keep your fruit options fresh.
Notice I didn’t put any baked chips, snack crackers, or other Fake Health Foods on this list? Come back for Should I Eat This? Part 3: Fake Health Food to find out why.
Where Can I Find Out More?
Should I Eat This? The Complete Series
- Should I Eat This? A Guide To Food In The 21st Century
All about the series and why I feel compelled to write it.
- Should I Eat This? Part One: Fast Food
Think you know everything there is to know about fast food? This might just surprise you.
- Should I Eat This? Part Two: Junk Food
You know junk food is bad for you, right? You don’t know the whole story.
- Should I Eat This? Part Three: Fake Health Food
Food companies lie to you every day. Here’s how to spot the fakes.
- Should I Eat This? Part 4.0: Meat & The Environment
Meat isn’t just about animal welfare. It’s people welfare, too.
- Should I Eat This? Part 4.1: Meat & Your Health
Pesticides, painkillers, and slime? Can these really be ingredients in meat? And why does meat have ingredients anyway?
- Should I Eat This? Part 5: Fish
What’s in a plate of sushi? And what does the military have to do with fishing?
- Should I Eat This? Part 6: Eggs & Dairy
Cruelty and environmental destruction by the dozen.
Should I Eat This? Part 7: Grains
Finally, something you should totally eat. Possibly.
- Should I Eat This? Part 8: Fruits & Veggies
Not only should you eat these, you should eat more.
- Should I Eat This? Cheat Sheet
The quick and dirty guide to eating clean.
- Should I Eat This? The Flowchart
A decision-making chart for those insoluble food conundrums.