‘Junk food’ is an expression that brings craving, fun and comfort to memory, aversion, apathy and a state of un-healthiness to mind. In the United States, the idea of ‘Junk Food’ manifested itself as far back as the early twentieth century, (e.g. Cracker Jack in 1896, Tootsie Rolls in 1905, Popsicles in 1923 [Fernandez, 2010]) while the phrase itself first started making appearances in the 1950s (Popik, 2008). Most American dictionaries define the phrase as food that has high calorific and little nutritional value. In a morphological perspective, the use of ‘junk’ as a prefix can be explained by already existing expressions like junk art (since 1966) and junk mail (since 1954). In fact, in one of the first ‘almost’ sightings in 1948, as Popik cites, the phrase ‘more junk than food’ appeared in a medical journal and was elaborated by the author as, “What Mrs. H calls ‘junk’ I call cheat food. That is anything made principally of (1) white flour and or (2) refined white sugar or syrup.” ‘Cheat food’ was an expression that was already in wide-spread use since 1916 and its citations could be found in dozens of newspapers of that time.
That brings us to the third perspective of ‘junk food’ which I would like to elaborate in this essay: the memetic perspective. A ‘meme’ is a unit of culture that is passed on from one person to another through communication. Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist who coined the term, explains that it works in the same way as a ‘gene’ replicating itself in various cultural prototypes and spreading like a virus to various parts of the world. It is important to understand ‘junk food’ from a memetic perspective because, although America was the nation responsible for the rise of the junk food phenomenon, the whole ‘idea’ of it has now spread to the entire world in its interestingly original form. A memetic perspective throws light on sociological, semantic and cultural aspects of the spread of junk food through-out the global community.
The meme ‘junk food’ picked up in popular cinema, music and media from the time it was popularised in the 1973 Washington Post article about children filling up on junk foods at school instead of getting a nutritional lunch like they used to do in the past. In the 1985 movie, The Sure Thing, a romantic comedy about Gib, a young man travelling cross-country with a woman he hates, Gib was quoted saying, “You know, junk food doesn't deserve the bad rap that it gets. Take these pork rinds for example. This particular brand contains two percent of the R.D.A. - that's Recommended Daily Allowance - of riboflavin.” This was among the first occasions when a cultural expression was made rationalising the use of junk food in younger generations. By now, we have seen numerous advertisements, movies and interviews of actors and actresses talking about junk food in a rather fond or indulgent way. For example, in a recent interview actress Keely Hawes stated in an interview saying, “I worked in McDonald’s but I didn’t mind it. You got free cheeseburgers. I love eating a bit of junk food.” This has always been the general attitude towards junk food in any age group and in any country of the world, which in turn throws light on the effects of the neo-liberal culture that is progressively spreading in various parts of the world.
Besides, the meme ‘junk food’ fits into various broader meme-types like ‘feel good’, ‘eating out’, ‘hanging-out’ or ‘addictive food habits’ that are themselves being replicated at a furious pace in most countries with western influences. In the book Gene Expression and Its Discontents, the authors R. Wallace and D. Wallace, explain that though there is an existing notion in America that the obesity epidemic is mostly attributable to the ruthless consumerist culture popularizing junk food to adults and children alike, ‘A McDonalds at every street corner’, truth is, in a sociological angle, Americans tend to indulge in junk food because of the ever-existing pressures of the unstable economy and employment scene in the last few decades. Contrastingly, in developing nations, it is a marking on some kind of barometric scale to copy the western culture and be able to hang out in a junk food joint and have everything on the menu that they have out back in the west. In developing nations, the idea is that having ‘junk food’ is cool or even necessary to enjoy the liberal culture like in the west.
The study of memes explains a lot about neologisms that come and go and especially of those that stay. Though the idea of junk food is first expressed through the phrase ‘cheat food’, it had not been replicated enough in the culture that it originated and had not been picked up by other cultures either. It is probably because the word ‘cheat’ already has a well-defined meaning and cannot be directly related to a phenomenon as hard to understand as ‘eating food without hunger’.