Defining “Junk Food” in an Asian Context

These days, we hear about “junk food” all the time, and the media and other organisations often make lists of the different foods that fall within this definition – most commonly instant noodles, fries, cola beverages, hamburgers, fried chicken and ham. Many people have a love-hate relationship with “junk food”, and plenty of them would rather just keep their distance entirely.

I am not an expert on “junk food”, having not done a lot of research on the topic, nor do I have a particularly strong interest in it. However, for a number of years, the media and others (in China) have sought my views and opinions on the subject, and I thought it time to share my opinion with all.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, “junk” refers to something useless or of little value, and thus “junk food” is seen as processed and convenience foods that are deemed unhealthy. In the West, “junk food” was initially defined as fast food such as burgers and fries, later expanding to include fried chicken and carbonated drinks. Although we’re not sure when it happened, in China, instant noodles and traditional fried breadsticks also gained the honour of being considered “junk food”.

Before discussing whether “junk foods” are unhealthy, there is something that I’d like to clarify: the so-called “WHO Top Ten List of Junk Foods” currently being circulated online is not real; the World Health Organization (WHO) has clarified that it has never published a list of “junk foods”.

People consider foods like burgers, fries, fried chicken and cola beverages to be “junk foods” because they have one thing in common: From a nutritional point of view, they are all high in either energy or fat content, and contain a limited amount of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Eating too much of such foods regularly may lead to an increase in body weight and body fat.

But is it only these foods that are high in energy and fat?

I looked into the China Food Composition Table, 2002 and 2004 editions, to find the nutritional value per 100g (or ml) of several relevant foods. The results are shown below:

Sources: The China Food Composition Table (2002 Edition) and the China Food Composition Table (2004 Edition)

As you can see from the table, the well-beloved Chinese foods, such as Peking duck and lamb skewers, have substantial amounts of energy and fat content, so much so that they almost resemble “junk foods”! For example, 100 grams of Peking duck contains almost twice the energy content of a burger, and more than double the fat. Lamb skewers are also quite high in fat and energy, although they do contain a lot of protein.

So, if we define “junk food” as food that is high in fat and energy, and lack nutrition in terms of vitamins and minerals, should we consider including Peking duck and lamb skewers in the list of “junk foods?” In that case, should other traditional Chinese foods like red braised pork, lion’s head, and chilli oil fish also be included? If so, wouldn’t that make the list too long and very different from what most people would expect? 

I think we should consider whether this foreign word, “junk food”, is suitable in the Chinese context when defining food. As a nutritionist, I do not believe that food should be divided into healthy and unhealthy categories (that is, “junk food” and “non-junk food”). The key to a healthy diet lies in eating a reasonable balance of foods.

For example, if I eat a burger for lunch, then in the evening I should probably eat more vegetables. Similarly, if I have instant noodles for lunch then I should supplement that with meat and vegetables in the evening. Red braised pork has a lot of fat, but that does not mean you should never eat it; rather, if you do not eat too much of it, nor do not eat it every day, then it can be part of a balanced diet.

There is something else that also needs to be made clear. More and more blame for obesity is being placed on “junk foods,” especially burgers, hot dogs, fries and sugary drinks such as cola beverages. However, causes for obesity are multi-faceted. From the dietary perspective, it is caused by the higher dietary energy intake, rather than energy expenditure. So while controlling the amount of calories we take in, we also need to burn more calories. It would be fine if you, on occasion, overeat, but then do more exercise to burn the extra calories.

Controlling your weight is a question of lifestyle. When we place the blame on a few foods, aren’t we just making excuses for our own laziness?

In short, “junk food” has no scientific definition; foods are not inherently “junk” or “healthy”. There is actually no such thing as “junk food”, but rather, junk combinations or a junk diet. Of course, if consumers wish to know more about the nutritional composition of different foods, they can refer to the recommendations made by the Chinese Dietary Guidelines. According to the “Healthy Eating Pagoda” within these guidelines, we should eat a bit of everything and not too much of anything.

Professor Junshi Chen serves as Chief Adviser at the China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment (CFSA).

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