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Junk the food

Rupali Datta | New Delhi |

We are scarcely immune to media hype. Guided by the profit motive, the food conglomorates shape and restrict what we eat and our idea of food. To change our food habits, their key word is “convenience”. To push the idea of convenience they are promoting the nocooking formula on the plea that their products need little or no preparation. As a result of their cunning and subtle manoeuvres and aggressive marketing techniques, tasty fast food ~ precisely junk food ~ have found space in our homes. Junk food has several advantages ~ they are easily available, tastier, easier to prepare, and quicker to consume. For years, such food has influenced the world with attractive colours, varieties and flavour, and by tickling the taste buds. Junk food is an integral part of modern popular culture. It is now available all over the world, in groceries and convenience stores, fast-food restaurants, and can be seen in television programmes and recipe books. It is the age of processed and what they call “convenience food”. The insidious plan of the junk food industry is to take over and destroy the home economy. The change of food habits is not incidental. In the December 7, 1959 issue, Time magazine published a long article on “convenience foods” and packaged the same as a form of “modern living”, based on the “heat and serve” formula. Food has been revolutionised gradually and we have also changed our food habits without knowing it. By design, first came cane sugar, then salt, followed by snacks. The genesis of the term “junk food” or “designer food” dates back to the early 1950s, but it is believed to have been coined in 1972 by Michael F Jacobson, an American scientist and nutritional advocate and the Director of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest. The idea was to arouse awareness regarding food that it considered to be unhealthy. However, junk food is defined as “any food, which is low in essential nutrients and high in almost everything else ~ in particular calories and sodium. Junk food contains little or no protein, vitamins or minerals but are rich in salt, sugar, fats and are high in energy (calories)”. Such food encompasses highly salted snacks like chips, high in refined carbohydrates like candy, soft drinks, ice-cream and high in saturated fats like cake and chocolates. It is bereft of calories as the energetic content is not complemented with proteins and lipids required for nutrition. Junk food is prepared skillfully with complex formulae. The idea is to enhance the taste. It activates the taste-buds. This “sensory-specific satiety” ensures consumption of food in large quantities over and over again, thereby keeping the business booming. Researchers have established that junk food leads to addiction. Those hooked to the pleasurable feeling caused by junk food continue to consume more and more. Prolonged consumption of such food results in reduced activity. The “addict” needs more and more to sustain the pleasure. Thus a cyclical feeling kicks in ~ a behaviour that is witnessed in case of drug addiction. The person becomes anxious, restless, shows mood swings and remains depressed once the junk food is withdrawn. Junk food is unhealthy and can be regarded as the slowest form of poison. It can result in obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, increase in weight, and many other chronic health conditions. Thorough scientific studies suggest that when we eat something high in fat, our brain gets “hit” with fatty acids, and the fat molecules direct the brain for sending messages to warn the body cells to ignore the appetite-suppressing signals received from lepton and insulin, both hormones involved in weight regulation. Since the body does not get the signal that it is satiated, it leads to over eating and obesity. Children who eat junk food as a regular part of their diet consume more fat, carbohydrates and processed sugar and less fibre than those who do not eat fast food regularly. Junk food in these children’s diets accounts for 187 extra calories per day, leading to around six additional pounds of weight-gain per year. According to researchers at Harvard University, by the year 2050, the rate of obesity in the US is expected to reach 42 per cent. The high proportion of sugar in junk food gets rapidly absorbed in the blood stream and prompts elevation of insulin levels. Though there is an initial feeling of energy, this soon gets crashed creating lethargy, drowsiness and a feeling of low-energy, leading to inactivity and a sleepy condition. The pancreas responds by pouring more insulin and trying to keep things in check. Eventually a condition known as “metabolic syndrome” kicks in, characterised by obesity, especially around the waist; high blood pressure; and other metabolic changes that, if not checked; can lead to Type 2 diabetes, with a heightened danger of heart attacks. Since the 1980s, Type 2 diabetes, which was minimal in teenagers, has risen to 15 per cent. Hormonal changes at puberty make teens more susceptible to mood and behavioural swings. Regular consumption of saturated fats associated with junk food such as fried chicken, burgers and pizzas impairs hormonal changes and increases the risk of depression in teenagers. According to the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, children who eat a lot of junk food may develop nutritional deficiencies that ultimately lead to low energy, mood swings, sleep disturbance and poor academic achievement. Eating too much junk food or food rich in trans-fats can impair the brain in a manner that is similar to Alzheimer’s disease. High sodium levels contribute to high blood pressure and heart, liver and kidney diseases. Young women who eat junk food regularly are at a higher risk of developing Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), impairing their fertility. Regular consumption can render young men infertile, even if they are physically fit and in good health. India’s junk food industry is becoming a major market and is expected to double in size between 2013 and 2016, to $1.12 billion. Demographic trends mean it could become the mega-market for international junk food/fast food players. A major chunk of the junk food market is ruled by multinational companies such as McDonald’s, Yum Brands, Domino’s, Coca Cola etc. Of course, domestic players are not lagging behind. On January 21, 2011, WHO formally issued a recommendation calling for a ban on junk food in schools and playgrounds in order to promote healthy diet and tackle child obesity. According to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), junk food is not defined, but instead falls within the category of food that is not standardised. As long as we are faced with a barrage of junk food, we need to watch what we eat because we are the custodians of our own health. Let us think twice before we open a pack of junk food. We need to remember the famous English proverb: “Don’t dig your grave with your own knife and fork”.