- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 4, 2000

The saying about garage sales is, "One man's trash is another man's treasure."

The same holds true at the grocery store, where one shopper's junk-food haul is another's health kick. Because there is no official measurement for what commonly is called junk, it is up to each individual to make the appraisal of a food's value in his or her diet.

Even nutritionists have trouble accurately defining what is junk. Again, it is like art they know it when they see it.

"There are a number of things that I would say make a food a junk food," says Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Washington-based consumer group that often analyzes the nutritional content of popular foods. "I would say any food that is enormously high in saturated fat, or any food with very little nutrition it in it few vitamins, minerals or protein."

Carol Simontacchi, a Vancouver, Wash., nutritionist and the author of "The Crazy Makers: How the Food Industry Is Destroying Our Brains and Harming Our Children," defines junk food as anything that has been refined and processed to the point where "the natural balance of nutrition is disrupted."

No matter what the exact definition, the experts are unanimous in telling us to cut down on the foods of our childhood memories white bread and Pop-Tarts, Twinkies and Twizzlers, Froot Loops and french fries.

"It is so complicated," says Sheah Rarback, a Miami nutritionist and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "We are so stimulated by the media to like these foods, it is hard to separate our natural preference for sugar from the seductive advertising."

There is a natural preference, Ms. Rarback says.

"We are born liking sweet foods," she says. "Babies will smile if you put something sweet on their tongue. And fat feels good. It has a nice consistency. It fills us up. Our mouths like the way it feels."

It is just the rest of the body that has a problem with it.

Beware of hidden junk

Sure, most people know daily chocolate bars and Big Macs do not make a healthy diet.

What really incenses Miss Hurley, though, is the junk food masquerading as healthy food.

"We have to get away from excusing foods because it has a drop of this or a drop of that," she says.

Among the biggest culprits, she says, are flavored fruit drinks, which say on the label that they are packed with vitamins. However, not all of the vitamins come from fruits, one of the best sources of nutrition. Most fruit drinks contain about 5 percent fruit juice.

"They have that fruit dancing all over the package," Miss Hurley says, "but basically what you have is a vitamin pill added to sugar water."

Another hidden source of junk is at breakfast, where many con-sumers are enticed by terms such as "low-fat," and "all-natural."

Granolas are marketed as healthy foods, but some contain more than 15 grams of fat per serving. Oversized muffins, which often are two to three times a normal portion size, usually contain oil and excessive calories.

"A muffin is not as bad as a croissant, which is full of butter," Miss Hurley says, "but if you go for the muffin, beware that it is not a diet food."

While a plain bagel is fine, a bagel with cream cheese has half a day's worth of saturated fat, Ms. Simontacchi says.

"Even low-fat cream cheese is so high in naked carbohydrates, it is not even a food," she says.

Surprisingly, Miss Hurley does not have a big problem with sweetened cereal.

"They are usually high in sugar," she says, "but they are not as bad as a Ho-ho or a Ding-dong. And maybe they are eating the cereal with milk, so it is all relative."

When choosing cereal, look for one that contains 3 grams or more of fiber per serving and has no more than 8.9 grams of total sugar, Miss Hurley says.

The junkiest junk, in Miss Hurley's opinion, is soda.

"There is no better example of a food that just gives you empty calories than soda," Miss Hurley says, adding that a 12-ounce Coca-Cola contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar. Even diet sodas should be avoided because the long-term effect of most artificial sweeteners has not been determined, she says.

Yet Americans are drinking more soda than ever about 50 gallons a year per person, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI reports that Americans drank twice as many soft drinks in 1997 as they did in 1973 and 43 percent more than in 1985.

Jackie Berning, a Colorado nutritionist and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says the foods we traditionally think of as "junk" such as potato chips, corn chips and cheese puffs are, in fact, her choice for the worst foods one can eat.

"When you eat chips, you get a whopping load of fat and very little nutrients," she says.

As a nutritionist, Ms. Berning is, of course, an advocate of a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. However, she says banishing junk food from the house will only make it more enticing. Moderation, the key to any success-ful diet, is also the key to taming a junk-food junkie.

"I don't even like the term 'junk food,' " Ms. Berning says. "Junky diet is more appropriate. If I am going to a baseball game, I am not going to bring a turkey sandwich and carrot sticks with me. I am going to eat a hot dog. But I can't do that every day. You just have to be moderate."

Harming bodies, killing brains?

Ms. Simontacchi takes a more extreme view toward fast food, fat, soda and snacks. They are not only damaging Americans' waistlines and cardiovascular systems, they might be killing brain cells, too, she says.

"We call a section of the supermarket the 'Health Food Section.' What is the rest of the store called, the 'Death and Disease Section?' " she writes in her book "The Crazy Makers."

"The Western World has gone astray in the most fundamental of life issues: the quality of its food supply," Ms. Simontacchi writes. "We have almost lost sight of what constitutes a normal diet. In our quest for convenience and a shift in cultures and priorities, we have pushed aside the notion that the purpose of eating is to provide energy for our activities and to maintain the structure of our bodies and our brains. Our new foods have altered our bodies and our brains."

The rise in depression, obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, road rage and learning disabilities can be blamed partially on the absence of protein and vitamins and the excess of chemicals in junk food, she says.

The bad habits begin with inferior infant formula and continue rapidly. Virtually no children get the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, Ms. Simontacchi says.

"Children and teens are eating foods that have been stripped of nutrition." she says. "They are taking minerals valuable to brain function and replacing them with things like sugar and coffee. I just heard of an espresso bar that opened in a high school. Where will it stop? We load our kids up with stimulants and then say we want them to go out and behave."

Ms. Simontacchi advises making small changes to see big improvements. Her suggestions include:

• Ask teen-agers to reduce their soda consumption by half. After the soft drinks have been reduced, try to eliminate them. Replace with water. If your family doesn't like the taste of water, squeeze a lemon or lime into it.

• Stop buying cookies, ice cream, candy and snacks. Replace with fresh fruits, vegetables and snack items from a health-food store. Try to make homemade treats so you have control over sugar, fat and food additives. If this seems too harsh, designate one day a week as "treat day" and allow just a little junk food on that day.

• Try to eat at least one salad with olive-oil dressing each day.

"If you do this for a month, you'll feel better," Ms. Simontacchi says. "They won't want to go back to junk."

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