De-Junking the Delectables: Not every sweet is bad for you, but too much of a good thing is

Would a new junk food tax on ice cream and cake in NYS prompt consumers to buy less–and consequently eat less–of the sweet stuff? NYS already taxes candy and soda. Our health columnist points out that some fat, sugar and salt are needed in our diets. The healthiest route might be to just control our portions.

| 05 Jun 2023 | 10:07

“Junk food” is what we call edibles whose calories outweigh their nutritional value. Their primary ingredients are fat, salt and sugar. While all three appeal to our taste buds, as a general rule , men like their fats salty (think chips) and women prefer them sweet (think chocolate).

On the other hand, both sexes enjoy the fact that food being food, even most of the junky stuff comes tax-free at the supermarket in 23 States and the District of Columbia. For example, here in New York where groceries are exempt from taxation, ice cream and cake slip right by the checkout counter, but not candy and soft drinks.

Junk food also comes tax free for the makers which is something a bunch of researchers at NYU School of Global Public Health and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts think should change because a “junk food tax” at the source might make this stuff more expensive, getting consumers to buy and eat less.

This is not a new idea. In fact, in many countries it’s one whose time came long ago. More to the point, as study co-author Sean Cash of the Friedman School at Tufts told Science Daily, “An advantage of excise taxes is that food companies may be motivated to reformulate their products to be healthier to avoid taxation.”

Will that make a difference to consumers? Yes. No. And maybe.

Our fondness for junk food is not an accident. Fat, sugar, and salt taste good which stimulates parts of our brain that make us feel good. So good, in fact, that we want to do it again. And again. And again, a chain of craving and reward that’s one way to define addiction. (Strangely, sugar alone isn’t all that powerful, but add fat and one recent review counted up to 52 studies saying Bingo! )

Most junk foods are easy to spot, but some sneak into onto our plates and into our hands in disguise. Think fruit drinks. Like fruit juice these “healthy” drinks may deliver vitamins and minerals, but when you read the label you’re likely to find added sugar. Ditto for “breakfast bars” whose claim to fame is whole grains but, as one analysis discovered, can have as much fat and added sugar as that candy bar you passed up.

So how to eat smart without junk? It is nutrition black law that moderate amounts of fat, sugar and salt are vital to your health. Fat insulates and cushions your organs; sugar provides energy; and salt maintains your fluid balance. In other words, forget giving up everything that makes your mouth smile and aim for moderation: Don’t cut out. Cut back.

First step: Shop smart. Take one breakfast bar and leave the rest on the grocery shelf.

Second: Control your portions. When you open a bag of chips, put a bowl on your kitchen scale, read the label, and weigh out one portion instead of spending TV time digging through the whole bag for handfuls.

Third: Substitute. For something sweet, try a banana with two tablespoons of Reddi-Wip commercial whipped cream (1 gram fat, less than 1 gram sugar, 15 calories). To satisfy salt cravings, slice a cucumber with its skin and sprinkle on some salt. There’s no baked carb crunch, but these “chips” may actually satisfy. As for something chewy, cut the ends off a sweet potato so it won’t explode when you put it in the microwave for about 10 minutes, then scoop out the soft inside, put that aside for dinner, slice up the rind, micro that for about 1 minute, add a pinch of salt. Perfect.

No kidding. No fat or sugar, either.