Not all processed foods are junk. So how do you find out what is actually junk food?

A SURGE in energy intakes is evident from our daily food consumption with the focus shifting from meals to snacks and from at-home to away-from-home foods. Forsaking healthy, home-cooked meals, many of us are today gorging on calorie-rich, nutrient-poor snacks, beverages and sweets. This shift has become rather gigantic in the West, with many studies across age groups showing that people are consuming a large proportion of their daily food via snacks rather than sit-down meals. This trend favours quick, easy, often non-nutritious, foods and high-calorie treats.

Changing lifestyle

The situation is no different in India; fast foods, street foods and processed foods are becoming part of our lifestyle. Of these, energy dense foods coupled with negative lifestyle factors and lack of physical activity are contributing to debilitating health conditions.Obesity and the incidence of non-communicable diseases are on the rise. In part, the problem is being attributed to the virtual replacement of conventional foods by processed products due to lifestyle changes. The concern is understandable, but today, only the processed food industry is under scan. It is necessary to understand that all processed foods need not necessarily be considered "junk foods". Similarly, all the fast foods and street foods need not necessarily be `junk'.

Health effects

Since junk foods are high in energy, excessive consumption, coupled with lack of adequate physical activity, may contribute to obesity. Studies in the West, which tested this hypothesis, found that those who ate these foods, compared to those who did not, consumed more total energy, fat, added sugars and less fibre, fruits and non-starchy vegetables. This shift indeed has become a cause for increased risk of obesity. However, in these countries, junk foods (contributing empty calories) have virtually replaced traditional diets.However, in the Indian context, there are no large-scale studies to understand the extent of junk food consumption and its role in causing obesity among people of different age groups. However, there are reports based on isolated studies on consumption of "fast foods" among the young people. An All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) study looked into the role of junk foods in causing obesity and hypertension among adolescents. Yet another study in Ludhiana found higher prevalence of obesity and hypertension among urban adolescents, who consumed junk food more frequently as compared to their rural counterparts.

Food labels

The food-based dietary guidelines for Indians formulated by the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) clearly indicate that processed foods, sugar, salt and saturated fats should be consumed judiciously. Food labels play a pivotal role in helping people understand health effects of various ingredients and thus make informed choices. The Indian Government has initiated stringent regulations in this direction. The current laws make it mandatory to depict the name of the manufacturer, place of manufacturing, date of packing, best-before date and ingredients. Along with all these details, through latest amendments, the Government has now made it mandatory for packaged food makers to furnish the details about the number of kilocalories per 100 gm of the food along with the fatty acids, additives and the processing aids used (if any). The recent amendment also makes it compulsory that the numerical information on nutrients be expressed as percentage of Required Dietary Allowances (RDA) prescribed by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). These regulations will definitely go a long way in helping us make healthy choices. However, experiences in developed nations indicate that there is a need to go a step further and make the labels more user-friendly by use of symbols. The traffic light scheme, designed to provide at-a-glance information on whether a food is high, medium or low in total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt, is becoming more popular. If not the nutrition awareness and ability to analyse the health effects of various foods, at least consumer education on these issues is essential for us to understand what is "junk" in these foods.Dr.V. Sudershan Rao is a Senior Research Officer and G.M. Subba Rao is Research Officer at the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad. E-mail: vemulasr@yahoo.com; gmsubbarao@yahoo.com

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What's what?
  • Processed foods are those subjected to technological modifications either for preservation or to convert into ready-to-eat items like ready mixes, dehydrated foods, canned foods, confectionery, bakery, dairy products and breakfast foods. They requi
  • re technology and machinery, and so are a little costlier. In India, manufacture of processed foods is rising in the unorganised, small-scale and cottage industries causing concern that they may not conform to food standards.
  • Fast foods are pre-cooked or cooked to order within minutes like burgers, fried fish, milk shakes, chips, salads, pizzas and sandwiches.
  • Street foods, as defined by Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), are a wide range of ready-to-eat items and beverages prepared and/or sold by vendors and hawkers, especially in streets and public places. Idly, Vada, Dosa, Chat items, san
  • dwiches prepared and sold on the streets. Safety in handling and serving is a bigger concern than nutritional impact.
  • Junk foods are those food that contain little or no proteins, vitamins or minerals but are rich in salt, sugar, fats and are high in energy (calories). Examples are chocolates, artificially flavoured aerated drinks, potato chips, ice creams and Fre
  • nch fries.
  • Any food, processed or unprocessed, street or fast food, can be termed 'junk' only if it has these above features.