The boring answer is, quite simply, nothing. “Junk food” as a term dates to the Information Revolution. Even “junk” meaning valueless waste is first attested in writing in the 1840s, well into the era of industrial manufacturing. Our metrics for defining it are equally modern: vitamins weren’t isolated until the early 20th century, and the standard working class meal before and during the Industrial Revolution was bread, cheese, and beer–three things that have all appeared on lists of “junk food” at various times in recent years.
On the other hand, the Twinkie was invented in 1930, and the only metric against which Twinkies are not junk food is in comparison to the deep-fried Twinkie. And this raises the essential question: what is a junk food? Is it a food devoid of nutritional value? A food we eat because we want to instead of need to? A processed food? Does it make a difference whether it’s eaten as part of a meal or in between, like a muffin for breakfast or a pizza slice for dinner? Or is a junk food simply any food a kid wants to eat that their parent won’t let them? All of these factors play into our concept that unites “chips, cookies, fries, whipped cream straight from the can”–which suggests junk food isn’t just about nutrition (or “health”), it’s about social context and the stigma attached to different foods at different times, consumed by different people, eaten in different amounts.
In ancient Greek formal dining, we can already see a connection between food consumption with some degree of stigma attached, food judged unhealthy, and food that people want to eat anyway. Classical formal dining was divided into tables/courses. In some of the earliest Greek writings, we have descriptions of first table or course offerings: stews, beans, meats, fish. For second servings, writing mentions things like dried fruits and nuts, hardly junk food – but contemporary art already depicts these tables with assorted cakes. It’s only in later literature that the cakes get mentioned as well, and we have recipes for them (some of them have distinctive shapes) making it clear they are sweetened in some way, usually honey or fruit syrup.
This is especially noteworthy because of ancient “nutrition” beliefs, tied into the ‘humours’ understanding of human anatomy. Sweet foods, as well as spicy ones and alcohol, were considered “hot”: they needed to be consumed in extreme moderation by most, avoided entirely by some, and always balanced out with “cold” foods eaten afterwards. But in second table, Greeks were eating their sweet food last – and conveniently forgetting to mention it.
Medieval Latin Europe’s combination of Christian aesthetic ideals and nobles’ prestige-by-consumption created an ever-shifting matrix of food considered physically and spiritually healthy/harmful, socially appropriate or forbidden. From a strictly theological perspective, the only food that was not “junk” was the Eucharist: scholastic theologians argued that because the Host (bread) became the actual Body of Christ, it was unfitting for the human body to excrete it as solid waste like ordinary food. But there was also “treat food” for sure. A great example is the Lebkuchen for which Nuremberg became the most famous from the late Middle Ages on – cakes ideally flavored with spices, definitely sweetened with honey, and fancifully decorated.
A good illustration of these ideas comes from the saga of Anna Laminit and Kunigunde of Austria. Around 1500 in Augsburg, Laminit achieved massive fame as a Hungermartyr or self-starving holy woman and prophet. But in a sting operation organized by Kunigunde, the imperial princess and former duchess of Bavaria who had retired to a convent, Laminit was unmasked as a fake when she was caught throwing her excrement out the window. She had claimed to subsist only on the Eucharist, which should not have produced junk. To cement the debunking, Kunigunde and her fellow sisters forced Laminit to join them in eating Pfefferkuchen–fancy food, not even the bread and water of penitence.
But then we come to the utterly ridiculous feasts of late medieval courts. Is it “junk food” or not when the insane meals (entire peacocks with their feet and beaks dipped in gold…and that’s just the second course) serve a very specific and acceptable sociopolitical purpose? The expenditure on guests asserted the power of the host; that’s not junk, right?
My Lord Costanzo firstly had ordered to be made numerous sugar castles with turrets, fanciful battlements, weapons, trees, flowers, animals, and other things all worked in gilded sugar with fine colours, as wide and as large as a man could carry. And apart from these castles, there were many antique vases full of ornamental golden streamers, as well as eagles, lions, and other animals made of sugar, all good to eat…[Eighty servants in Sforza livery] carried a basket about two-feet long and a hand span deep, gilded and filled with confectionery of all sorts, such as those made from three types of coriander, and from hazelnuts, almonds, oranges, and cinnamon. Each basket also contained many large pieces of crystallized sugar and candied lemon prepared in the Sicilian manner.
…and that’s after the jellies and truffles and pies and sugar onions, but before the sugar trees and the pastry camel and…
That particular 1475 wedding took full advantage of the earliest stages of European imperialism, the conquest of the Canary Islands and establishment of sugar cane plantations worked by slaves. Sugar is perhaps the most in/famous “junk food” product of colonialism–indeed, it was only then that Europeans came to see sugarcane as a food ingredient instead of a rare spice with mostly medicinal uses. And as the reference to crystallized lemon indicates, other commodities that became more widely available or available for the first time in Europe created new possibilities for prepared treats. It was around this time, too, that pastry/pies, the food that along with pancakes unites the world, moved into the realm of sweetened desserts/treats instead of just savory meat-delivery devices.
But for all of sugar’s importance in the Atlantic world, it wasn’t the only “junk food.” In fact, one of Native Mesoamerica’s most treasured treats would take Europe by storm–and set an intriguing precedent for very post-Industrial Revolution conceptions of junk food.
“Chocolate”, not the candy but as a cold, unsweetened frothy drink, was one of the things European colonists appropriated from Indigenous people in Mexico. And while white people in America and Europe partook, one group in particular became strongly associated with its consumption: women. Early modern clerics rage against drinking chocolate, virulently chastising women who go so far as to sneak the beverage into Mass, they’re so unable to put it down.
The cultural gendering of chocolate consumption in contrast to its actual fans (i.e. everyone) heralds the 19th-century association forged between women and sweet things. This was pushed for two reasons as women’s visibility in public and importance as independent consumers became more important and consequently more anxiety-provoking. First, the marketing of ice cream parlours and candy rooms as women’s or women’s-only social spaces was intended to keep women out of alcohol-serving establishments that needed to be the province of men. Second, in conjunction with (ideally) keeping women away from alcohol, it cast women as child-like, with childish tastes and eating the same things as children. When the military decided candy was a useful food for its troops in the 20th century, it had to embark on a massive marketing campaign to convince men that eating candy was manly.
And ultimately, that’s where we still are today: junk food, food that appeals to popular (esp. juvenile) taste but has little nutritional value”.
2. Elisa Sampson Vera Tudela, Colonial Angels: Narratives of Gender and Spirituality in Mexico, 1580-1750.
3. Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.
4. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets.
5. Jane Dusselier, “Bonbons, Lemon Drops, and Oh Henry! Bars: Candy, Consumer Culture, and the Construction of Gender,” in Sherrie Inness, ed., Kitchen Culture in America.