What makes “junk food” junk?

Poor Diet Contributes to Death and Illness in the U.S.

A study conducted by researchers from Tufts University and NYU School of Global Public Health has found that poor eating habits are a significant contributor to morbidity and mortality in the United States. Consuming a poor diet greatly increases the risk of developing cancer, cardiometabolic diseases, and weight gain.

One effective strategy to combat poor eating habits is the implementation of junk food taxes. These taxes raise the cost of junk food products, reducing consumption, and the revenue generated can be used to support underdeveloped areas. Although the administration and legality of taxing junk food are possible, there is still a lack of a universally defined term for “junk food.”

To better understand the definition of junk food in terms of food regulations and taxes, the researchers analyzed thirty years’ worth of American food policies. They found that the determination of which foods should be subject to health-related regulations depends on a combination of factors including food category, processing, and nutrients.

Typically, junk food refers to sugary or salty snacks and desserts with low nutritional value, accounting for 15% of all calories consumed in the United States. However, there is a lack of consistency in defining junk food for policy purposes, which hinders public health efforts to address the issue.

One example of a policy requiring a clear definition of junk food is the implementation of a junk food tax. This policy aims to increase the price of such products, reducing consumption, and allocating the generated revenue to programs that support underserved populations with their nutrition and health.

While junk food taxes are not widely used in the United States, they have been successfully implemented in several other countries. For example, Hungary imposes taxes on unhealthy food falling into specific categories and containing high levels of nutrients such as sugar and salt. This has led to reduced consumption of junk food, increased awareness of nutrition, and forced manufacturers to reformulate their products to make them healthier.

The researchers discovered that various U.S. policies define junk food based on food categories, processing methods, nutrient content, location of preparation or sale, and portion size. Multiple criteria are often used to define foods in current regulations, with the combination of food category, processing, and nutrient criteria being a common approach.

The study emphasizes that using food product categories to differentiate between staple and non-staple foods is a key aspect of these policies. Additionally, a combination of processing and nutrient criteria is frequently employed to determine which products within food categories should be subject to regulation.

For example, the Navajo Nation’s junk food tax uses this combination method, specifying which foods are taxed based on their category, processing, and nutrient content, including saturated fat, salt, and sugar.

Implementing junk food taxes as excise taxes paid by manufacturers or distributors, rather than sales taxes paid by consumers, can be an effective approach. These taxes can be earmarked for specific purposes, such as improving access to healthy food in low-income communities.

Overall, the study highlights the importance of defining junk food for taxation and regulatory purposes to effectively address public health concerns associated with poor eating habits. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.