Israel has an enormous diabetes problem, being ranked second only to Mexico among all OECD countries with its mortality rate for type-2 diabetes, for both men and women. And more than 50% of Israelis are overweight or obese. So much for the famous Mediterranean diet… at least in that South-Eastern corner!
In a search for solutions, the country's health minister has recently targeted McDonald’s as the country’s leading purveyor of junk-food. Yet McDonalds has arguably been doing everything right to improve their fast-food offer and the company takes great exception to being addressed as a seller of ‘junk-food’.
Recent advertisements from McDonald’s in the Israeli press declare that the fast-food chain has made changes to its menu worldwide in recent years. Specifically in Israel, they have:
But McDonald’s is particularly incensed about the ‘junk-food’ label and that’s why it has now challenged the Israeli Health Minister to develop a precise junk-food definition that uses nutritional criteria such as: calories, fats, carbohydrates, sugars, sodium, cholesterol, protein, fiber, fruits and vegetables per 100 grams - all with the intention of showing that it's food offering does not count as junk-food.
Whatever you may think of McDonald’s, the chain has set high standards of food hygiene and adapts regularly to the published nutrition rules and guidelines. In the early 1990’s, they famously stopped using beef tallow for their French fries, adopting trans-fat heavy vegetable oils to be consistent with the new (now thankfully amended) US government guidelines.
In national ads, McDonald's accuses the authorities of using slogans and not facts.
So what precisely is "junk-food"? It generally refers to foods that contribute lots of calories but little nutritional value and is often associated with high levels of saturated fat, sugar and salt… precisely those ingredients which McDonald’s has cut back on in Israel. For general purposes though, I am reminded of the expression used by the late US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who, when defining pornography replied: "I know it when I see it".
Although there is no official definition, most of us would agree on what junk-food is and what it looks like. Or would we?
Depending on where you live, the nutritional information on your food labels usually lists calories per serving together with grams of fat, salt, cholesterol and sugar content, sometimes including a macro-nutrient list and a percentage of fibre. But does that provide enough scope to help define junk food accurately?
I doubt it; because in reality, junk-food should also be defined by the use of preservatives, emulsifiers and stabilizers to add consistency, taste and shelf life to pre-prepared and packaged products. To my mind, fry-ups that use industrially manufactured vegetable seed oils should be added to the list of criteria… and I’m sure there are many other plausible junk-food ‘ingredients’.
But getting nutritionists to agree on a definition might be difficult; particularly with wildly opposing views on the alleged benefits of low-fat dairy and/or the digestive dangers of cereal-based breads. In fact that’s why McDonald's can effectively call the bluff of the Israeli Health Minister. No one can define junk-food.
Using available definitions today; the global hamburger chain is quite possibly not a purveyor of junk-food at all. The words from their recent national newspaper ad read: "When unhealthy food is defined scientifically and not according to slogans, you will be able to prove that McDonald's Israel is the exact opposite of junk food."
The Israeli health ministry's spokeswoman, Einav Shimron Greenbaum, is reported as saying: " ...that no country's nutritional board has issued a scientific definition of junk food". But Israel does have a position paper against eating fast-food, described as: "food that is eaten in 7-10 minutes without fork and knife, needs little chewing, and makes the eater feel satiated only after 20 minutes, pushing the eater to consume more".
Yet if you are beginning to sympathise with the views expressed by McDonald's, please bear in mind that McDonald’s burger buns are listed as containing:
“Enriched Bleached Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Yeast, Soybean Oil, Contains 2% or Less: Salt, Wheat Gluten, Leavening (Calcium Sulfate, Ammonium Sulfate), May Contain One or More Dough Conditioners (Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, DATEM, Ascorbic Acid, Azodicarbonamide, Mono and Diglycerides, Monocalcium Phosphate, Enzymes, Calcium Peroxide), Calcium Propionate (Preservative).”
And let’s also remember that only about 50% of a McDonald’s chicken nugget is actually made of chicken, the balance being made up of:
“Water, Food Starch-Modified, Salt, Seasoning (Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Salt, Wheat Starch, Natural Flavoring, Safflower Oil, Dextrose, Citric Acid), Sodium Phosphates, Natural Flavor. Battered and Breaded with: Water, Enriched Flour (Bleached Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Yellow Corn Flour, Bleached Wheat Flour, Food Starch-Modified, Salt, Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate, Calcium Lactate), Spices, Wheat Starch, Dextrose, Corn Starch.” Then fried in: “Vegetable Oil (Canola Oil, Corn Oil, Soybean Oil, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil) with TBHQ and Citric Acid to preserve freshness of the oil and Dimethylpolysiloxane to reduce oil splatter when cooking”.
But do these lists of ingredients push such items into the junk-food category? Maybe they don't. And probably they won't …at least, not until we have a better universal definition of what junk-food really is, taking us away from the usual culprits - salt, sugar and saturated fat. That overly simplistic focus only helps the industrial food machine adapt and gear up for more business.
"FAT IS OUR FRIEND" ADVOCATES A DIET:
Sammy Pepys was the pseudonym used by James Capon when writing this book. He is not a doctor or a nutritionist but has studied nutrition and holds an MPH from Edinburgh University. Over the years, he has become increasingly suspicious of today's conventional wisdom about diet and health. When it comes to what we eat, he has helped many learn to eat more healthily.