Last week we launched our social media campaign called #sackthesnack inviting readers to take the challenge of swopping one daily snack for alternative behaviours like taking 200 steps, doing a little #kettlecise stretching or maybe even standing and moving to take a short phone call. The rationale for focussing on snacks was because snacks like biscuits, cakes, pastries, crisps and sugary drinks provide a fifth of our calories and cutting even one of these snacks in our daily life (and burning a few calories extra) might help us on the way to re-balancing our energy intake.

Much discussion has emerged in the office …. Aren’t snacks an important part of everyday life? What about snack “meals”, aren’t snacks healthy as part of a balanced diet? Don’t children need to eat between meals? Basically …. Are snacks essential for modern day living?

When I use the word “snack”  I really mean “discretionary foods” ( the term used by Food Standards Scotland and others) which refers to foods and drinks not necessary to provide the nutrients the body needs. This definition is important at the moment because when people compare tobacco use with food habits critics say they are different because we need food to live, we do not need tobacco. Well, actually we don’t need discretionary foods to live!

But are we being too polite? A paper from Simone Pettigrew and colleagues collected responses from 409 adults on perceptions around the words “junk food, snack food, party food and discretionary food.” No surprises in the findings that ‘Junk food’ was the term most clearly aligned with unhealthiness , generally these foods were seen as being devoid of nutritional value with quotes like… 

“Pre-packaged food high in salt and fat”

“Highly processed, fatty foods that taste good” 

“Deep fried, with preservatives” 

‘Snack foods’ were considered to include both healthy and unhealthy food products and evoked comments such as;

“Snack food to me means packaged snacks as well, or things like cheese and crackers, popcorn. Snack food can be healthy or unhealthy”

“Convenience food that is quick and easy to eat. It is often unhealthy, but can also be healthy”

It was notable that the term discretionary foods was less familiar and more open to confusion.

The other term that we use is ultra-processed foods which includes these same snack food/drink items. Important because high intakes of these have been linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. In addition, intake of ultra processed foods have also been associated with poor appetite control,  bad news because we are less able to manage our weight.

The bottom line is… if we want to communicate clearly, snack foods are not needed for healthy lives. Using the term ‘junk foods’ might just help get this message over.  

Take the challenge – #swopthesnack  one snack at a time !

Prof Annie Anderson – SCPN Co-Director

Images: Unsplash

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