Shop Smart: The Lure of Junk Food

I just read “The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food” by Michael Moss in the NY Times recently. It certainly was a thought-provoking read (and fairly long, so allow yourself some time). It addresses not only the profit-seeking aspect of junk food companies, but also the company’s goals to create foods with just the right blends of salt, fat, and sugar, and just the right sort of textures or mouth-feel. The article was adapted from Moss’s upcoming book titled “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” which will be published by Random House this month.

As far as junk food goes, I’m not a “junk food eater” but I do occasionally eat junk food. Does that make sense? My definition of “junk food eater” is one who eats lots of packaged food and drinks soft drinks, everyday. My thought on junk foods such as chips, corn curls, pretzels, and other salty snacks, is that they can be “once in a while foods”. Raising three children, we don’t open a bag of potato chips every week to munch on, but we may pour a bag into a bowl for a picnic or birthday party. We do enjoy salsa with tortilla chips a bit more often – maybe three times a month. Just last weekend a friend made some delicious homemade guacamole, which we ate with tortilla chips as a snack before a homemade dinner of chicken stuffed with spinach and whole-wheat pasta-vegetable salad, and a fresh fruit platter. So the meal didn’t “consist” of junk food, and this is how I see junk food “fitting into a healthy diet”.

Sometimes we want to eat food that’s fun. Sometimes our bodies send messages like “I need some salt”. It’s okay to pay attention to those messages, and it’s okay to splurge on occasional junk food, but read Moss’s article, and think about what you are buying at the store, and how or why your are eating some of these “pleasure foods”.

There is much to consider when we talk about how junk food may fit into a healthy diet. This year’s National Nutrition Month® tagline is “Eat Right. Every Day. Your Way”. I like to use the 80/20 rule – your goal is to eat right 80 percent of the time, so you will balance the other 20 percent of the time that you aren’t choosing the healthiest options.

For instance, take the guacamole. Avocados are one source of healthy plant fats. The mixture we enjoyed also included some chopped fresh tomatoes – healthy stuff! Corn tortilla chips were used to scoop up the healthy homemade guacamole. So the junk food delivered some healthy stuff too. It was a pre-dinner snack among eight adults and some children, so the portion we ate was also reasonable.

Compare this to opening a giant bag of cheese curls (I can honestly admit that I love cheese curls, so therefore I am aware of needing to have some self-control when eating them – of course I only buy them about once or twice a year). You just don’t dip cheese curls into anything. You just eat them. They have absolutely no nutritional value, and they are light and fluffy, so it would be easy to consume hundreds and hundreds of calories in one sitting, if you aren’t aware of how much you are eating and the calorie load (there is about 2400 calories in a one-pound bag of corn curls).

I do not want to ban junk food manufacturing. But as consumers, we need to be aware that eating too much junk food is simply not healthy. And, we also need to be aware, that junk food companies are not in the business of health or healthcare, they are in a profit-driven business. So when companies of all sorts come up with “healthy” or “natural” options, don’t be fooled. Whether they are using organic corn, organic potatoes, and expeller-pressed canola oil, these junk food treats still offer up a sodium load and 150 calories per ounce! It’s up to you to eat less of them, and eat more fruits and vegetables, beans, and other real food.

The food industry isn’t going to back down. If you stop buying one type of packaged food, they seem to create a new one overnight. If there is enough consumer demand however, there may be some future change down the line in their practices. Shop wisely, and focus on eating less packaged food of all kinds. Your body will benefit. It’s the only body you have.

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