I often talk about “processed food” and “junk food.” Let me define my terms, because the categories overlap somewhat. By “processed” food I mean food that has been processed as a part of the industrial food system–seasoned rice mix, microwaveable, pre-sliced beef with gravy, most store-bought breads. Typically this kind of food is loaded with things you wouldn’t put in it if you made it yourself.
It is not always bad stuff–and usually at least looks and sort of tastes like real food–but processed food is usually loaded with ingredients you probably don’t want to be eating, and is rarely the best choice if you can do better. By “junk food” I mean the things that don’t even try to fool you into thinking they are real food: Packaged pastries, heavily sweetened breakfast cereals, most salty snacks, those kinds of things.
Sometimes the processed food is worse than the junk food. I’d take a bag of potato chips fried in safflower oil over the microwaveable “fresh spring peas in a tasty butter-flavored sauce” any day. The first is a junk food that knows it’s a junk food. You can eat a little of it knowing exactly what you are getting (deep-fried potatoes with too much salt). The second is junk pretending to be food. You eat the peas thinking something like “well, at least that’s one of my five-a-day,” but really you’re probably getting more garbage in the peas than you are in the chips. Junk food is not always all that heavily processed. Processed food, even if it started out as real food, almost always becomes junk in the course of being processed.
What processed or junk food do you love to hate?
Avery Hurt is a health and science journalist. Her work appears regularly in national publications such as: Better Homes and Gardens, Newsweek, and The New Physician. She is author of Bullet With Your Name On It: What You Will Probably Die From And What You Can Do About It (Clerisy Press, 2007) and Don’t Worry, I’m Not Contagious: Your Guide to Staying Healthy in an Infectious World, due out from Clerisy, fall 2008. She is at work on her third book, on alternative medicine.