“Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world.”George Bernard Shaw

Anything equivalent to rubbish is referred to as ‘junk.’ Junk food, for that reason is self-explanatory as food of low value. They are poor in nutrients and also have many harmful effects on the body. Just as a vehicle filled with poor quality fuel is bound to breakdown, our body fueled with junk will inevitably malfunction with serious consequences.

Junk foods exist in so many different forms. These range from packaged or semi-prepared foods like chips, cookies, biscuits, chocolates, candies, instant noodles, white bread, jams and spreads; pastries like doughnuts, cakes, muffins; and unhealthy fast foods like burgers, pizzas and various deep fried foods. And there are junk drinks too – all sugary, colored and carbonated drinks. It is very important to be aware of them and strictly limit them in your diet, if unable to avoid altogether.

Junk food manufacturers mainly use refined grains, sugar, salt and saturated or trans fats in various unhealthy combinations. Such foods are either extensively processed resulting in loss of nutrients or are prepared with ingredients already stripped of many valuable nutrients. Then they are often topped with artificial colors, additives and preservatives. The final product is a deadly concoction and certainly not how real foods are supposed to be like.

This is all done to make the food last longer, give a false sense of taste palatability, trigger cravings (even addictions) to get consumers to eat more and more. Furthermore, people are often eating not just one but various kinds of junk foods throughout the day. A cocktail of unhealthy and unnatural ingredients constantly go inside the body!

It is equally important to recognize junk foods that ‘pretend’ to be healthy. Sometimes, they take out one unhealthy ingredient and highlight that to give a better connotation. However, those foods remain high in other unhealthy ingredients. For instance: ‘sugar free’ biscuits are loaded with harmful fats and ‘fat free’ are high in sugars and both are often made from nutritionally poor refined grains.

Similarly there are many junk drinks that disguise themselves as ‘juice’ with names like ‘fruit delight’ or ‘fruit nectar’ and with claims such as ‘contains real fruit juice’, etc. In reality, these drinks contain very little real fruit juice and are basically a blend of sugar, water, colors and preservatives. It is often the same with the so called ‘sports drinks’ or ‘energy drinks.’ Calorie less sugar substitutes used in ‘diet foods or drinks’ are indeed too good to be true and are associated with many health hazards.

Various commercial breakfast cereals might claim health benefits but their sugar content tend to be higher than desserts. Similarly, there are products that give a pretext of being ‘multigrain’ while they mostly consist of refined grains. Then there are ‘brown breads’ with added brown colors and not always whole wheat as implied. Examples of such deception are endless …

The bottom line is that junk foods are produced and marketed with pure commercial motives. There is certainly no health consideration. The evidence is mounting on their linkages with many deadly diseases in childhood and adulthood (overweight/obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart diseases, stroke, cancers, depression, nutrient deficiencies, etc.) Poor diet is now considered far worse than cigarettes and directly related to seven out of every ten deaths in the world. Thus junk foods can be likened to weapons of mass destruction! They may not kill instantly but are deadlier over time … leading to health care costs, poor quality of life, misery and death.

Despite that, a huge market exists and will continue to grow - as long as people unquestionably keep consuming such foods. Mankind has made tremendous progress against communicable diseases, but now is increasingly caught up in a vicious cycle of proliferating junk foods and the diseases they invite. Such a tragic paradox and it is high time we woke up and did something about it!

These problems do have solutions. It takes conscious and smart consumers to outwit junk food manufacturers in their shady games. Armed with the knowledge about the dangers, both demand and supply can be curbed:

- It is of utmost importance to protect our children from these harmful products and ensure their basic right to good nutrition. Home is where everything begins. All parents must constantly ‘brain wash’ their children on the dangers of junk food – and also about the goodness of nutritious foods. Other family members and guests also ought to act more responsibly and help reinforce healthy habits.

- Pre-schools and schools have the ethical and moral responsibility to prohibit junk foods and provide nutritious foods. Good nutrition has to be a part of the curriculum at each level. These principles ought to be continued by colleges and universities.

- Policies need to be stepped up to raise the alarm on junk foods in all fronts. Health care providers must continuously inform people about the harm for all ages and critical times such as pregnancy. Aggressive marketing and promotion, especially to children, has to be curtailed. Junk foods should not be allowed to undermine traditional wisdom and replace local healthy food cultures.

- Fast food as such do not have to be junk. There are plenty of healthy alternatives (fresh and dry fruits, baked or grilled options, wholegrain varieties, traditional foods, etc.) Those who make and serve junk foods must realize the gravity of their impact. They need to be a part of the solution by opting for nutritious varieties.

Clean environment, both outside and inside the body, are precursors for good health and happiness. Wholesome, fresh and simple foods are the clean foods. Disease feeding junk foods should have no place in our diet, culture and societies. Don’t they deserve a red alert?