Some things just scream junk food. You know double-stuffed chocolate cookies and the cheese puffs that stain your fingers orange aren't good for you. But it's not always so obvious to identify healthier foods. This takes a little investigative work. Comparing junk food to healthy food means reading and understanding nutrition labels, identifying ingredients and thinking about how foods are prepared.
Read the nutrition label of a food from top to bottom.
Look at the number of calories per serving and examine the number of calories from fat. Junk food usually provides a large number of calories per serving, with the majority of the calories coming from fat. Healthy food should be low in calories and especially low in calories from fat. On a 2,000 calorie diet, you should consume less than 65 grams of fat a day.
Analyze the types of fat the food contains. Junk food is usually high in the bad types of fat -- trans and saturated. The American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 1 percent of total trans fat from calories, or less than 2 grams of trans fat a day if you have daily diet with 2,000 calories. Less than 20 grams or 10 percent of your total calories should come from saturated fat. Healthy foods have little to no trans and saturated fats.
Study the amount of cholesterol and sodium in the food. For a daily diet of 2,000 calories, you should consume less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol and 2,000 mg of sodium. The higher the numbers, the more likely it's junk food.
Read the percent daily values of dietary fiber, vitamin C, vitamin A, calcium and iron. These are good nutrients often absent or low in junk food -- less than 5 percent of the recommended daily value for that nutrient is considered low. For a food to be rich in the nutrient, it must provide at least 20 percent of the nutrient's recommended daily value.
Consider the food's overall content of nutrients such as fiber, calcium, iron and vitamins A and C. A healthy food doesn't have to be high in all of these nutrients. An orange, for example, provides 130 percent of the daily value for vitamin C, but it only has 2 percent of the daily value of vitamin A and no iron. Some healthy foods provide a lot of one nutrient, while others provide smaller amounts of a variety of nutrients.
Look up the sugar content and compare it to the food's ingredients list. Foods such as fruit have naturally occurring sugars, and naturally occurring sugars won't appear in an the ingredients list. Junk food often has a large amount of added sugar, which you will see listed under a variety of terms, including sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey, maple syrup and fruit juice concentrate.
Read the ingredients list. The order of ingredients in the list indicates how much is in the product. The first ingredient comparatively makes up most of the product, the second listed ingredient is the second most plentiful, and so on. If you see sugar, salt or fat as one of the first ingredients (or high-fructose corn syrup, enriched flour, or corn starch), it's one of the main ingredients in the food. Junk food is often high in all these. Be aware that food manufacturers have gotten tricky to list sugar as different ingredients; look for sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, brown sugar, dextrose.