In defense of better junk food


Not too long ago, I had the luck of joining a small group of food scientists in touring P.F. Chang’s headquarters, in Scottsdale, Ariz. We were led through a maze of test kitchens and that’s where I came to appreciate how the restaurant company decides what ends up on their menus. Our tour guide was the senior product development manager for the company’s “fast casual” spinoff Pei Wei Asian Diner. He gave us a brief look into his job traveling through countries like China, Vietnam, and Thailand looking for the “best of the best” of ingredients. “It all began with the sauce,” he said, “flavor was king.” Then came the decision of what food items (e.g. chicken) on which to place the sauce. Once a novel concept was thoroughly developed came sensory analysis testing with trained focus groups and, finally, pilot runs at a handful of restaurants. Collecting pilot data was a critical step to be sure a product wouldn’t fail once launched. He gave examples of some of his successes and that’s when I became curious.

Looking at the Pei Wei menu’s nutritional information, I noticed that not a single one of their signature or combo dishes listed fewer than 500 Calories (kcals); nearly all of them were above a 1,000 kcals. So I asked the senior manager about what he’d done to try to offer healthier choices. The question seemed to annoy him at first because he answered dismissively, “People don’t come to our restaurants to eat healthy.” Of course, he must’ve noticed my shock because he followed with a lengthy story: that he’d heard it all before when he first was hired—that people wanted healthier options—so, he’d worked on a low-fat, low-sugar sauce on an Asian-style salad containing plenty of vegetables. But what happened? Even with a hefty “health” marketing campaign and pictures of the dish displayed prominently at the front of the restaurants, people wouldn’t buy it. They couldn’t sell enough to keep it on the menu. It was a lesson learned; the item was a mistake having lost the company money, and it was not to be repeated again.

Last month, I thought about my encounter with the Pei Wei senior manager while reading David Freedman’s article How Junk Food Can End Obesity. In the article, Freedman argues that the best way to combat obesity is to “prod Big Food” to reduce calories from fat and problem carbs (aka high-glycemic carbs) in foods. That’s despite a plethora of past failures like Pei Wei’s—for example, the McLean Deluxe “reigns as McDonald’s worst product failure of all time,” writes Freedman. The reason it failed may be because consumers were turned off by marketing of the food as “healthy”, which they might’ve perceived as a sacrifice to flavor. Flavor is king; people don’t go to fast food restaurants for anything else, especially if it means paying a premium for it. But now, Freedman reports, McDonald’s is quietly reducing kcals from fats and sugars (and sodium) in its menu in ways that they hope won’t alarm customers. Freedman applauds those changes and argues that the public should welcome them too, taking issue with those who subscribe to a narrower view—such as Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Melanie Warner, and others—that healthy eating can only mean eating “whole foods.” As you might expect, the anti-processed food voices have heavily criticized Freedman by repeating arguments that a “calorie is not a calorie” (for a better understanding of why kcals are wrong yet right on labels, see this post); and one writer even goes as far as suggesting that Freedman is “racially and class insensitive” to propose that the poor couldn’t be Pollanites if given the choice (I saw no evidence of insensitiveness in the article).

Not everyone can be a Pollanite

You might describe me as a Pollanite by the way I eat. Nearly every weekend, I visit a local farmer’s market to purchase my share of kale and heirloom tomatoes. I adore wandering the aisles of Whole Foods or Costco looking for treasures of the “whole food movement”. I read labels and marketing messages (sometimes just to ridicule them), become enchanted by stories of animal welfare or ingredient authenticity, and end up spending loads of money on new adventures in food that I haven’t yet tried. Although like Freedman, I’m also left irritated when I hear someone giving a sales pitch for a new green juice that has “alkalizing power to prevent you from getting fat” (happened last week) or see a food label with a variety of marketing messages suggesting wholesomeness yet having a high content of fat and sugar. Dr. Yoni Freedhoff of University of Ottawa argues that this “health halo” phenomenon may also infect and sabotage any efforts of improving diets through better junk food, too. It’s a valid concern. I see through these false promises because of my training in nutrition science, but research (Wansink and Chandon 2005) has found that “health halos” or nutrition claims are likely to confuse average consumers and lead them to overeat the foods that they deem healthy.

One of my best friends is one of these average consumers. I’ll just call him Joe. Joe is not a nutritionist; he’s a self-employed film producer who has little time to visit farmer’s markets or shop at Whole Foods. Plus, as he says, it’s “damn expensive” to shop at those places. And, “who’d know what to buy anyway?” Instead, Joe admittedly eats fast or processed food for nearly every meal. He also thinks he’s doing right by his body to avoid artificially sweetened soft drinks preferring the high-sugar varieties (that’s another problem of the whole food movement: the scare tactics that hurt rather than help). Over dinner at a Denny’s restaurant one night, I gave him a hard time about his burgeoning beer belly. Then he confessed, “Look, I hate cooking and so does my wife. We know we should eat better, but vegetables just don’t taste good.” Then he pointed to my plate of half-eaten food. “I have no willpower. I can’t push away food like you. You put food in front of me and I have to eat it,” he said. Joe will never be a Pollanite. So I thought of Joe when reading Freedman’s article.

Joe is the norm, not the Pollanite or the nutritionist (although it seems everyone thinks they are a nutritionist these days). The average American, Freedman writes, receives nearly 11 percent of daily energy from fast food. I’ve seen reports that puts the number as high as 15 percent. In addition, Americans spend nearly 41 percent of food dollars eating out. But like Joe, they know they need to eat their “five a day” fruits and vegetables. They just don’t. The average Joe is what makes Freedman’s argument convincing (at least to me; and it has nothing to do with class or racism). “Junk food” looks to be where one of the greatest opportunities lies in reducing obesity. And I confess it sickens me a little to declare that we have to work with fast food restaurants (having gone as far as preaching boycotts of fast food restaurants like Burger King).

But how realistic is Freedman’s plan and will consumers buy into it? The answers are unclear. McDonald’s claims they are trying to improve quality of menu items; however, new evidence shows fast food restaurants have only made modest improvements over the last decade and a half despite their statements (Hearst et al 2013). What little was achieved was really thanks in part to legislation (such as banning trans fats) and consumer advocate groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest putting pressure on the companies to make voluntary efforts. The study looked at 14-year trends in nutritional quality of eight fast food restaurants—McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), Arby’s, Jack in the Box, and Dairy Queen. It found that a few of the restaurants did increase protein from meat and beans on their menu items while reducing saturated fat, and total calories from solid fats and sugars. But none save KFC managed to make major increases in nutritional quality by introducing vegetables and total grains. Two of the restaurants’ nutritional scores (namely, Wendy’s and Burger King — looks like I’m still boycotting these) actually worsened over the years.

This news has me really worried about my friend and the average Joe’s children. Back in 2003, nutrition researchers Marie-Pierre St. Onge, Kathleen Keller, and Steven Heymsfeld already had cautioned in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that American children were eating drastically more fast food over the decades. Children were also increasing their intake as they reached older ages. Nowadays, the statistics show children are receiving more kcals from fast food than in their own school lunches. We know these children are unlikely to change their food patterns growing older; in fact, they’ll probably worsen. They are unlikely to be Pollanites; they’re more likely to go on eating fast food. And that–our unfortunate children in this new fast food environment–is the main reason I believe Freedman’s plan must work.

Shaping junk food in the future

The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) annual tradeshow last month gives reason to be optimistic. At the show, companies introduced quite a number of new offerings and technologies aimed at helping Big Food offering healthier menu items. For example, there were plenty to help fuel the growing “high protein” and “high fiber” trends. Foods higher in percentage of fiber and protein should be welcomed, as any nutritionist would agree, because they offer greater satiety, which may help combat overeating and the “health halo” phenomenon. Companies also have introduced a variety of ways to reduce salt, fat, and sugar in different applications without sacrificing flavor. And, again, flavor is king if one wishes to have a bottom line. What I am most fascinated with is the launch of several new methods for boosting consumption of fruits and vegetables through processed foods (I’ve written an article for IFT’s forthcoming issue of Food Technology magazine that explores this topic further). These include new methods for infusing fruit-and-vegetable ingredients (e.g. kale) into processed foods with minimal effect on flavor. Also, there are new treatments (e.g. enzyme inhibitors) to preserve texture and flavor of fresh fruits and vegetables for use in applications such as ice cream or yogurt parfaits for use in fast food restaurants.

Processed food is here to stay. It’s useless, as Freedman argues, to try to make it “go away”. But perhaps it is possible to “prod Big Food to intensify and speed up efforts to cut fat and problem carbs”. After all, that would make a bigger difference on the obesity epidemic than any of the popular books urging us to eat more like our ancestors did. It may not be ideal, but it’s better than continuing along the path we’re on. What’s more is that the food technologies exist to help fast food restaurant companies if they will just get on board. Besides McDonald’s, there are a couple of companies already appearing to be heading in the right direction: Taco Bell just announced they are offering a new protein-heavy, lower-kcal menu (burritos and bowls with more than 20g protein and less than 450 kcals, plus 0-kcal beverages); and Pepsico and Kellog, too, look to be attempting to improve their snack food items by reducing sodium, along with sugar and fat calories. Perhaps they will also be motivated to add in some stealthily disguised servings of fruits and vegetables components—one can always hope! Then, perhaps we can get past calling these companies’ appetizing items “junk food” and finally just start calling them “food”.


Hearst M, Harnack L, Bauer K, Earnest A, French SA, Oakes M. Nutritional Quality at Eight U.S. Fast-Food Chains: 14-year trends. American Journal of Preventive Medicine Volume 44, Issue 6, Pages 589-594, June 2013. Available at: (hat tip: Colby Vorland)

St. Onge M, Keller K, Heymsfeld S. Changes in childhood food consumption patterns: a cause for concern in light of increasing body weight. Am J Clin Nutr December 2003 vol. 78 no. 6 1068-1073. Available at:

Wansink B, Chandon P. Health Halos: How Nutrition Claims Influence Food Consumption for Overweight and Normal Weight People. 2005. Available at: (hat tip: Dr. Yoni Freedhoff)

Published by David Despain, MS, CFS

David is a science and health writer living on Long Island, New York. He's written for a variety of publications including Scientific American, Outside Online, the American Society for Nutrition's (ASN) Nutrition Notes Daily, and Institute of Food Technologists' (IFT) Food Technology magazine and Live! blog. He's also covered new findings reported at scientific meetings including Experimental Biology, AAAS, AOCS, CASW, Sigma Xi, IFT, and others on his personal blog "Evolving Health." David is also an active member of organizations including the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Society for Nutrition, the Institute of Food Technologists, and the National Audubon Society. David has a master's degree in human nutrition from the University of Bridgeport, and a bachelor's degree in English from University of Illinois at Springfield. He also earned his Certified Food Scientist credential from the Institute of Food Technologists.

8 thoughts on “In defense of better junk food

  1. Excellent post! I totally agree – Friedman’s points seem spot on to me, if we are to be at all realistic about food. I know quite a few people who eat fast food at least once a day. They are never going to start buying and preparing vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins at home, and they sure won’t switch to salads at the fast food places. The only way to help them to eat better (and to combat obesity, etc) is to make appealing fast food that tastes good but packs in better nutrition.

    Now, aiming for healthier fast food (but not necessarily advertising it) does not mean we can’t also do other things! Why can’t we simultaneously work to make things like farmer’s markets available to more populations *and* push fast food and processed food companies to reduce fat and calories in their menus?

    My spouse and I went to Denny’s today because I had a buy-one-get-one-entree coupon. We checked online to make sure they had some things that were reasonably healthy, and found that the “Fit” menu is actually really good! Low calories, high protein, lots of veggies – in much contrast to the very high fat and calories of the rest of the menu. I noticed that the Fit items aren’t in a special section of the menu – they are mixed in with the other entrees. At first I was surprised, but average Joes are far more likely to order them when they aren’t listed in a “healthy” section, or at least that’s what I’m hoping. When we ordered, the waitress arched her eyebrows and joked “trying to be healthy, hmm?” which makes me think the Fit entrees aren’t ordered very often. While I’m very glad Denny’s has these Fit items, how much more good could they do by reducing fat and calories across the board? For the record, my Fit veggie skillet was delicious and very filling – so much so that I do not believe the calorie count 😉

    1. Anastasia,

      I wholeheartedly agree (as nearly any nutritionist would) that a priority should also be placed on increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This is especially true in underserved areas. Fortunately, there are tremendous efforts pushing for those changes through policy, working with local farmers and businesses, and working to increase amounts of fruit and vegetables in schools ( A recent CDC report now shows 28 states have a farm to school/preschool policy and 27 now have created state-level food policy councils–coalitions ( That’s great news! But despite the changes, daily intake of fruits and vegetables is still abysmally low. We can do better… through fast and processed food.

      Now I’m hungry for a veggie skillet!


  2. Terrific piece. I just want to say something about the generally accepted view that fast-food restaurants haven’t made much improvement in recent years, in spite of pressure on them to do so, and in spite of what in some cases could be seen as marketing efforts to make it look as if they’re improving. This view was sharply backed up by the prominent media coverage of this recent study ,

    coverage that claimed in no uncertain terms that the study had found that if anything, things were getting worse at fast-food restaurants, because while they had added many healthier items, they were adding even more unhealthy items over the same time period.

    This to me was a fine example of how science journalism is really missing the boat in its coverage of scientific studies about health and medicine, but let me not get started ranting and raving about that. Instead, I’ll point out that we need to be a little more careful about how we do the math on these things. If a restaurant offers 19 junky items and 1 healthy one, and then over some period of time adds 6 unhealthy items and 4 healthy ones, then, yes, it’s true, it’s added more crap than healthy items. But have things gotten worse? Initially 5% of its items were healthy; now about 17% of its items are healthy. If it keeps this trend up, then in theory it will eventually end up with a menu that’s close to 40% healthy. One could even fairly claim that the trend exhibited in this toy example is to make higher and higher percentages of its added offerings healthy, so that the sky is the limit in how the menu transforms.

    I’m not in any way saying that Big Food has done a good job so far–it hasn’t. But we need to be careful about not giving them some credit for the little it has done, because these improvements must be recognized and reinforced as part of the process of pushing Big Food into doing more. We can’t count on Big Food doing this without the right input from all of us, in terms of both pressuring companies and incentivizing them. The point of my article, of course, is that we should exert that pressure and those incentives any way we can, instead of simply hoping absurdly that we can convince the entire obese world into not eating any processed food at all, essentially abdicating responsibility for pushing companies into making these changes.

  3. David – as always, a great discussion of the current state of nutrition and where it can go using the way Americans eat today. Fast food is a reality that isn’t going to go anywhere. Working with them to move toward the lower fat and refined carbohydrates approach is worth the effort. The fight for our food dollar is a war between food manufacturer’s. They don’t want to sacrifice market share and profit today. Too bad. If you end up losing customers to degenerative disease, that isn’t going to help the future bottom line. But it looks like progress is being made and we should all do what we can to encourage it. Thanks again, David.

  4. Great article, as usual. I suppose I’m a ‘Pollanite’ most of the time, but certainly, venture into the world of processed-food-topia every once in a while. The idea of mandating or regulating choice, doesn’t seem to be such a great idea, in my opinion, because the laws of supply and demand, as you report, simply prevail in the end, and of course, people have free will, and cannot simply be controlled and manipulated. The Big Food Prod may or may not be helpful, but it is interesting, watching Mickey-D quietly focus on nutrition, without scaring customers. It’s more of a cultural shift within the corporation, I suspect, more than profit-driven. Profit, of course, always wins the day, but corporate culture does make a difference as well.

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