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Word of the Week: ‘junk food’


We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘junk food’.

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Did you feel like there was something missing from your commute this morning? Was it, per chance, a giant, glistening, mouth-watering image of a Big Mac? 

Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has banned all ‘junk food’ ads from appearing on Transport for London services in an attempt to tackle the UK’s childhood obesity crisis. The ban comes after research found there are now more children classed as obese at the age of 11 in the UK than in the US. 

This means no adverts that promote food or drinks high in fat, sugar or salt will be accepted. Brands that sell ‘junk food’ will still be able to advertise – but will have to promote the healthier alternatives in their range. i.e. McDonalds and Burger King will be pushing their salads (yes, salads).

It’s a word that, in the past week, has seen a surge in searches on Google Trends – most specifically in London. Whether that’s Londoners investigating Khan’s ban further, or a couple of hungover commuters trying to get their ‘junk food’ fix, is harder to know. 

Meanwhile new reality TV show The Junk Food Experiment (currently a ‘breakout’ search term on Google Trends) is due to air tonight on ITV. The show features six (I quote) “brave” ‘slebs gorging on burgers, pizza and chicken for 21 days in order to prove the devastating effects of ‘junk food’ on our bodies. Peter Andre (oh yes, he’s back) is reported to have enjoyed the experiment.

Either way, the word that, according to Merriam Webster, ranks in the top 40% of most searched words ever, has got people talking.

What does ‘junk food’ mean?

‘Junk food’ is defined as: “food that is low in nutritional value, often highly processed or ready-prepared, and eaten instead of or in addition to well-balanced meals”.

The Urban Dictionary, has of course, a more succinct version: “food that is delicious, don’t get addicted to or it might make you fat”.

Though ‘junk food’ itself has been around for a surprisingly long time, (since the 1896 invention of Cracker Jacks) the noun ‘junk food’ was first popularised by Michael F. Jacobson – of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest – in 1972 as an abusive, derogatory term for food.

 ‘Junk food’ itself is largely an American tale. It became an institution in the 1950s, alongside automobile culture and the “drive-thru”. 

Another, slightly wider, definition includes: “anything that is attractive and diverting but of negligible substance”. 

The use of ‘diverting’ here (synonyms include ‘distracting’ and ‘sidetrack’) says something about the role ‘junk food’ plays in many people’s lives. It points to the need for some distraction, some escapism. And who needs that more than a bleary-eyed, non-homeowning, student debt-ridden commuter?

This definition can also point to anything that fits under that wider umbrella of entertaining but oh-so-bad for you, like reality TV, Piers Morgan and the overuse of social media. It’s all in its own way, ‘junk food’. 

Some think the decision represents nanny statism at its finest – or that healthy eating comes down to nothing more than educational and socioeconomic circumstances. Others have pointed out that the revenue lost from the ads will impact passenger fare prices. 

While banning ads might go some way, what are passengers to do when, once out of the tube, they are greeted with McDonald’s golden gates on every street corner in London? Or, when ‘junk food’ is often the cheapest option on the high street? Whether you agree with the ban or not, it certainly gives you some non-processed, additive-free food for thought.

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Roisin McCormack