Are all processed foods junk foods?

Almost anywhere we turn we are urged to avoid processed foods as they are filled with sugar, fat, salt and unpronounceable ingredients. Junk foods, euphemistically called fun foods, are ones that we could do without but may not be that bad if eaten only as an occasional treat. But are all processed foods junk foods?

The Mayo Clinic divides processed foods into five categories:

  1. minimally processed like baby carrots,
  2. fruits and veggies canned or frozen at peak nutrition,
  3. foods with added ingredients to improve flavor or texture like sauces and mixes,
  4. ready-to eat foods like snacks and sandwich meat,
  5. and heavily processed like ice cream and frozen entrees.

The idea being the further down the list, the more likely they are to be junk foods and the less of these items we should consume. Let’s look at some of the processed items I found in my house to see into which category they fall.


Should these processed foods be considered junk foods?

Oreos are definitely a category E food. With this 6-cookie pack you are over the recommended daily limit of 6 teaspoons of sugar. You also get over 15% of your fat and saturated fat for a day and over 10% of the recommended sodium. The good news is that they contain almost 10% of your daily value for iron, and they qualify as plant-based and vegan. Verdict: Junk.

Intense Dark Toffee Interlude (55% cacao) also fits into category E. A whole bar (3.5 oz.) contains 50% of one’s daily allowance for fat, almost 100% of saturated fat and over 12 teaspoons of sugar. The good news is that it is low in sodium. Aren’t the fats in chocolate healthy and doesn’t chocolate contain antioxidants? Yes and yes, but, following popular ideas of a healthy diet, that is still too much saturated fat and sugar if a whole bar is consumed at one sitting. Verdict: Junk unless very judicious with portion size.

Potato chips fall into category D. The 1.5 ounces sour cream and onion chips in this pack contribute to almost 25% of our daily value for fat, 10% for saturated fat, and 10% for sodium. Not too bad if we limit consumption to this small bag and eat healthy the rest of the day. The good news is that it has 15% of our daily value for vitamin C and virtually no sugar. Verdict: Junk if we overindulge.

Gluten-free, multigrain penne pasta doesn’t seem to fit into any of the Mayo Clinic categories. A one-half cup serving delivers less than 5% of the daily value of fat and sodium as well as less than a teaspoon of sugar. The bad news is that it contains 200 calories with none of the big four vitamins/minerals (vitamins A & C, calcium and iron) and is not usually a dish in itself. Note, a similar product made from wheat and containing gluten would have fewer ingredients, not be as heavily processed and provide some B vitamins. Verdict: Not Junk.

The organic tomato sauce is definitely in category C and goes well on top of the pasta or in my delicious eggplant parmesan1. It has a little more than a teaspoon of sugar and 11% of the daily limit for sodium per serving. I suspect that I probably get more than ½ cup of sauce on my plate when I eat this delicious home-cooked meal. Fortunately it provides lots of vitamins A and C and some calcium and iron. Note, although it is organic, it is just as processed as non-organic tomato sauce.  Verdict: Not Junk.

A can of beer doesn’t seem to fit any of the categories except maybe D. Next time when opening a can of beer or a bottle of wine note that it has no nutrition label. Beer may contain minerals and antioxidants, but there are much healthier ways to get these minerals and antioxidants than alcoholic beverages. There is probably no food chemical more destructive to human health than ethanol, the alcohol in alcoholic beverages. The good news is that small amounts of ethanol daily may help protect against heart disease. Excess alcohol is definitely unhealthy and can be addictive. Verdict: Junk.

Hot-dog rolls or other breads don’t seem to fit into any of the categories either. One roll which I plan to slather with Benecol and toast with my leftover eggplant parmesan for lunch contains little fat and less than a teaspoon of sugar. A single roll adds 11% of my sodium for the day. I estimate that the Benecol on the toasted roll will contain about 15% of my daily allowance for fat, almost 10% for saturated fat and another 7% of salt. Although bread is the leading contributor to salt in the American diet, it is not generally considered to be a processed food. Verdict: Not Junk.

How can we tell which products qualify as junk food and which ones do not? Although we may agree that too much salt, sugar and/or fat constitutes a junk food, you might classify the above items differently from me. If a dark chocolate bar is junk, however, then so too is a can of beer. The point of this post, however, is that not all processed food is junk food. In fact, most processed food is not junk food. When appeals are made to avoid processed food, it assumes that all processed food is unhealthy. Almost all of such appeals urge us to cook at home. That is fine when we have the time, but we live busy lives and cooking takes time. I cook much more now than when I was working full time, but I still enjoy preparing and eating a mix of processed and home-cooked foods. Many of the ingredients I use when I cook, like the pasta and the tomato sauce, are also processed. When we prepare meals at home, we need to make sure that we are not turning those dishes into junk food by adding too much salt, sugar and fat.

We seem to be a society that is becoming more and more polarized in our food as well as our politics. Individual foods are judged to be either god or bad, healthy or unhealthy.  Dietitians for decades have been advocating balanced diets that promote health. The term for restricting foods we eat to only “healthy” ones such that the diet becomes “unhealthy” is orthorexia2. A healthy, balanced diet can allow room for the occasional junk-food treat, either processed or homemade, as long as we don’t overdo it. Eating even decent and wholesome food to excess adds calories and may not be so healthy, particularly if they squeeze out room for other foods that could lead to a more balanced diet.

Next week: Black and brown food

1Gutterson, C., 2006, The Sonoma Diet Cookbook Des Moines IA: Meredith Books, see the recipe on page 189.

2Bratman, S., 2004, Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia nervosa – the Health Food Eating Disorder, New York: Harmon



9 thoughts on “Are all processed foods junk foods?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s