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Sensemaker audio

What counts as junk food?

What counts as junk food?

The British government wants to ban junk food adverts. But who decides what’s junk?


Claudia Williams: Hi, I’m Claudia – and this is Sensemaker – from tortoisemedia.com

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today: why the government is fighting over avocados, marmite, and cream tea.   


“It’s hard to explain, I don’t really like toffee that much but that advert did make it look quite nice.”

Primary school child speaking as part of Cancer Research UK campaign

There’s a little bit of all of us in that little boy. You’re not particularly hungry but then – woah! – you see an advert for something delicious, and before you know it… you’re heading down the corner shop.

Now Michael Jacobson is a man you’ve probably never heard of… but this week his life’s work has almost come to fruition in the UK. 


“Some people call us the food police because we’re the group that blew the whistle on the staggering calorie and fat counts in movie theatre popcorn, Fettuccine Alfredo, Kung Pao chicken, and other popular restaurant meals.”

Michael Jacobson speaking on CSPITV

Michael Jacobson is chief of the ‘food police’. He’s spent the past four decades shaping the public debate about food and health. 

“But you know, we’ve always thought of ourselves as food detectives, investigating unsafe food additives, scouring supermarket shelves for deceptive labels, exposing exactly who’s paying for the latest study by spotlighting financial conflicts of interests…”

Michael Jacobson speaking on CSPITV

In fact, Michael Jacobson is the man who came up with phrases like “junk food” and “food porn”… phrases we now use all the time. And this week, long after his campaign began, the government announced it was going to crack down on junk food advertising. As a way – in the end – to crack down on junk food.

From April 2022, there’ll be a “total ban” on all junk food adverts, online and on TV, before the 9pm watershed. That includes advertising any food that is high in saturated fat, salt, or sugar… 

But there’s been pushback from businesses and broadcasters, complaining that there’s no evidence it will actually do anything to help what has been described as an “obesity epidemic” in the UK.  

So the question is: how do you decide what actually counts as junk food?


“Have you noticed more people in the supermarket picking up items in grocery stores and checking the label for calorie count or the amount of grams of sugar or saturated fats?”

Jan Roller, President of The City Club of Cleveland

It’s strange to think of picking up a jar, or a packet, and not finding a list of ingredients on the back… but food labelling is actually quite a new phenomenon.

“Think of a label, you know it’s this big, think of it as a battleground.”

Michael Jacobson speaking at Harvard Food Law Society Forum

… and it was a battleground Michael Jacobson fought on for years… 

“Where that’s the industry’s  way to get you to buy the product, they want to make it as tempting, as beautiful looking as possible and then the consumer wants information, usually the consumer wants honest information, and so there’s a tension between industry and consumer.”

Michael Jacobson speaking at Harvard Food Law Society Forum

The food industry would say – and they’d be right – that food has got a lot cheaper over the years. The average family in the UK spends much less on food these days than their parents or grandparents had to. 

BUT…we’ve discovered that there are downsides to all that cheap food. One in three children leaves primary school either overweight or obese. And the government seems to have finally had enough…. 

Possibly, Covid has played into their thinking. One of the things we learned from the pandemic was that being overweight or obese made your outcomes much worse if you caught the virus. 

And it didn’t matter who you were. An overweight prime minister would suffer just like the rest of us.

“You know I’m not normally a believer in nannying or bossying type of politics but the reality is that obesity is one of the real co-morbidity factors, losing weight is one of the…”

Boris Johnson speaking to ITV News

But what you, or I, think of as “junk food” is just the start of it.


In the 1940s, baked beans on toast with a bit of tomato ketchup on the side was supposedly “junk food”.

Today, under the government’s new regulations, things like marmite, hummus, yoghurt, and even avocados are technically all in the firing line because they’re high in sugar, fat or salt. 

And ironically, many of the foods advertised in the government’s own ‘Food is Great” campaign promoting salmon and cream tea would also be targeted. 

So takeaways and restaurants have criticised the government’s approach, saying it’s just a slap in the face that will do little to help people make healthy choices… And campaigners have pointed out that social and environmental factors – such as poverty – are more pressing issues when it comes to obesity.

“The government’s  impact assessment said that the 9 o’clock watershed for advertising would reduce calories by I think two or three per day, that’s a bit less than 5 grapes so we’re in danger of taking action here which is kind of tokenistic, it’s about chasing headlines.”

Tim Rycroft, Food and Drink Federation, speaking on ITV News

So let’s look at what actually counts as junk food.  

It will all be determined by something called a ‘nutrient profiling model’ which was developed by the Food Standards Agency fifteen years ago. The model uses a scoring system… it balances beneficial nutrients that are particularly important to children’s diets against all the bad bits. 

Then, the overall score will indicate whether that food or drink can be advertised. 

So a serving of marmite scores really well on both sugar and fat but it’s full of salt… bringing down its overall score which means it ends up on the banned list. That means you might only see adverts for Marmite after 9pm. But despite all the backlash from businesses and broadcasters, they’re up against a system they might find hard to argue with.

It’s not just a back-of-an-envelope thing, there’s proper science behind it. And it’s supported by both the independent Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and a wide range of nutrition experts. 

Of course, it’s one thing to have a solid set of reasons for saying something is a junk food and something else isn’t. 

But what the government can’t scientifically prove is whether an advertising ban will make people eat less of the food they consider to be “junk” and more good stuff. 

That’s guesswork, not science. 

Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper