Junkfood Science: <i>Weekend food for thought:</i> Mythology of health food and junk food

February 10, 2007

Weekend food for thought: Mythology of health food and junk food

Everybody knows what is “junk food” and what is “healthy” food, right? The only sticky wicket is that what is popularly believed to be true doesn’t make any scientific sense.

Pop science says that foods low in calories, fat, salt and sugars are healthy and the other stuff is bad. As we explored here, and here, efforts to feed our children well based on these notions have no credible evidence to support them and are harming kids.

Fats, sugars and high-energy foods have a lot of necessary nutrients, especially for growing bodies. Enjoying a variety of foods in our diet will help ensure our bodies get everything they need to prevent deficiencies, and that’s about as good as the science gets. The questionable science starts to come in when we believe certain foods have magical powers to do good or bad. Sugars, for instance, are popularly believed to be bad but they are the main fuel needed by all our cells — essential for vigorous physical activity and brain function. Our brain is mostly fat and the only energy source it uses is glucose.

So if you get right down to it, sugar is the real brain food. In fact, sugars eaten before a test improve test scores considerably and sugar improves learning and mental functions among both old and young. Some schools figured this out and used it to help students get better grades. You probably missed this article from Times UK...the reasons for its low profile are obvious.

Science can be so inconvenient to political agendas. :)

Junk food 'helps pupils pass exams'

Children do better in exams if they are given junk food for lunch, new research has found.....Researchers found that struggling schools were manipulating their lunch menus to give pupils a lift before vital exams. The menus were loaded with pizzas, hot dogs, chocolate drinks and biscuits and improved test results immediately afterwards.

The research, conducted in America and published in the British Journal of Public Economics, found that many American schools used computers to monitor the nutritional content of their meals. Prof David Figlio, of Florida University, said: “The evidence suggests that some alter their menus to try to improve test scores and the evidence indicates that this may be successful.”

Prof David Benton, a psychologist at Swansea University, has done tests on pupils in this country. He said: “We found an orange glucose drink increased the ability to concentrate and sustain concentration.”...

In sorting out what “junk food” and “health food” mean, we find that there are no definitions in nutritional science because such ideas are largely political and social constructs. Contemporary, feel-good ideas, rather than rational science. Our bodies are smarter than we are and they really don’t care where they get the nutrients they need. They will break down foods, regardless of their source, to their same basic nutritional elements. Elemental sugars from table sugar or all-natural honey or fruits, for example, are the same thing. The protein and fats are the same, whether they come from a sirloin steak with a side of pommes frites or fast food burger and fries. The differences between a prosciutto-filled panini or ham on white bread sandwich aren’t in the nutrition.

One of my all-time favorite articles on the disconnect between science and beliefs about junk food and health food is an incredibly entertaining and poignant article written by Dr. Johan H. Koeslag, head of the Department of Medical Physiology at the University of Stellenbosch, Tygerberg, South Africa. It appeared in a 1990 issue of the South African Medical Journal. He wrote:

French-fries are junk-food, but roast potatoes are not; bread is a basic food-stuff, but biscuits [cookies] are junk; wine comprises "empty calories," but fruit juices are health foods; the sugar in cake is detrimental to health, but the sugar in honey and grapes is not. White bread is not "nutritious," but cauliflower is, though it consists of 90% water, 5% starch, a minute amount of protein, and only traces of vitamins and minerals (other than potassium). What then is "junk" food?...

The alternative definition often tendered is, therefore, that junk or "non-nutritious" food is any consumable which cannot, on its own, adequately support health....Indeed if this latter definition is to be taken seriously, then everything we eat is junk: cabbages, carrots, tomatoes, apples, oranges, grapes, meat, milk, bread, tap water etc. The real definition of junk food (or, of any of its synonyms) should recognize the fact that the adjective is applied exclusively to food items that children, and especially teenagers, find appetizing. Thus, codliver oil, despite its undeniable greasiness and artificially added vitamins and preservatives, is not junk food, because children loath it. Cake, which children love, is, on the other hand, a non-basic (or junk) food, despite containing flour, eggs, milk products, fruit, and sugar (which, with the inexplicable exception of the sugar, are all individually classed as "basic" food items).

Another factor which distinguishes "junk" from "basic" (or "nutritious" food), is the amount of effort the lady of the house expends on preparing that food. All "fast-foods”... and commercially "pre-cooked TV dinners" are, thus, without exception, junkous by nature. Potatoes, if they are peeled and roasted in the home, are "highly nutritious", but if they are bought appetizingly ready to eat, then they are "empty calories" (what does this term mean?). ...

The complete article can be read here.

Yesterday at Spiked-online, Emily Hill explored the insanity behind the ideas from governmental agencies about which foods are “healthy” and “junk.” How insane are their ideas? Cheese, raisins, bran flakes and even breast milk is “unhealthy!”

Is breast milk a ‘junk food’?

...Next month, the Office for Communications (Ofcom) will enact its ban on TV advertising of junk food to children. But first, a model had to be constructed whereby foods could be judged ‘unhealthy,’ and therefore subject to the ban, or ‘healthy,’ and therefore not subject to the ban....It devised the ‘Nutrient Profile Model,’ a complicated system based around overall energy (number of calories) and the percentage of salt, sugar and saturated fats in a product per 100 grams (regardless of the average serving size). According to this model, cheese, alongside honey, certain cereals, marmite and a host of other pretty nice and healthy foods, will be classified as junk foods to be hidden from children....cheese, which has been part of children’s healthy diets for decades, and which is packed with calcium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc and A and B vitamins.

‘...FSA has dressed this up as being a science-based approach to nutrition and changing people’s diets. But it isn’t science-based. It’s flawed. It’s scientifically weak, and it comes up with obtuse results.’...

Sure, this article has a distracting cheese industry slant. It also gives the standard food industry’s response that it has been doing its part to promote “heathy eating” — a stance which is every bit as flawed and scientifically weak and obtuse as the definitions of “junk food” it argues against. Still, its own arguments work to debunk that, too.

[All of this is] ill-thought-out symptoms of the political and media-whipped hysteria over our expanding waistlines. No matter that we’re healthier and living longer than ever before, apparently we must be constantly told what to eat, when to eat it, how much exercise to take...[This] could lead to the development of a fetishistic attitude to food, where we see certain grub as ‘good’ and other grub as ‘bad’. Yet the idea that a particular food is evil is ridiculous... the FSA model and the Ofcom ban shows how silly it is to make arbitrary judgements about food and to demonise certain foodstuffs. The ban is as irrational as it is unnecessary – and it could ultimately lead to the creation of abnormal, obsessive attitudes to the things we eat when we’re hungry.

What it all comes down to is that food is food. It's all good. :)

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