What Separates Junk Food from the Real Stuff?

"This is a no-brainer. Junk food has calories, but little or no nutritional value," says pikawicca. "I think we all know it when we see it. Some examples are ice cream, potato chips, pork rinds, you get the idea." It seems obvious at first: Soda and candy bars are junk food, fresh spinach and mangoes are not. But what does it really mean to be junk food? Is it merely unhealthy?

"Take candy bars for example," says ipsedixit. "You might say a Snickers bar is junk, but what about a Snickers Dark, which is made out of dark chocolate? Dark chocolate is supposed to have antioxidant and other healthful benefits. And, aren't peanuts good for you, which all Snickers bars have? Junk?"

Are rice cakes junk food? "They certainly aren't harmful in the sense that they are full of transfats or high in sodium or sugar, but then they are essentially empty calories—offering only simple carbs and very little fiber. Junk?" wonders ipsedixit. "If cardboard had calories, we would just call them rice cakes and make the dictionary one word less voluminous."

For that matter, "is vodka or tequila a 'junk' beverage because its nutrients are minimal?" wonders beevod.

LauraGrace thinks the concept of "junk food" has more to do with the level of factory processing than unhealthiness. A lightly processed food could even be relatively unhealthy—high in fat, say, like heavy cream—and she wouldn't call it junk food. Highly-processed foods, like the aforementioned Snickers bar, would almost always get classified as junk food in LauraGrace's book, though. "Even something low fat, or low carb, or whatever, that bears no resemblance to any ingredient found in nature (fat-free Twinkies, light beer *wink*), I would label as 'junk' in almost every situation," she says. Her definition? "Junk food is anything that, through extensive processing, becomes a product whose component ingredients are unidentifiable."

Discuss: What counts as "junk food"?

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