Feast Your Eyes On The World’s Healthiest Junk Foods

Gray, Amelia. “World’s Healthiest Junk Foods”. 2021.

With the rise of fast food chains, grocery stores offering hundreds of products, and simple, appetizing recipes online, the temptation to indulge with a quick snack has never been stronger. We all want to have those “cheat days”, but what if it was possible to experience that burst of flavor without compromising your wellness goals with pre-made, processed, packaged food? As luck would have it, this is entirely possible! Prepare for National Junk Food Day this July 21st by perusing the world’s healthiest junk foods, with ingredients you would be eating anyway, but re-envisioned to pay homage to your sweet tooth, umami tooth, and love of different cultures!

The World’s Most Crave-able Treats

The following world’s healthiest junk foods come from countries like Australia, Japan and everywhere in between, with substitutions for meat, dairy and gluten ingredients.

Vegan Black Pudding (Ireland/UK)

Traditionally, the Irish and British black pudding is prepared by mixing pig’s, sheep’s, or cow’s blood with oatmeal, with the proportion of oatmeal being much higher than seen in the black pudding from other countries. While it is considered a core part of a Full English and Full Irish breakfast, that doesn’t mean it cannot be made vegan! Serve with tomatoes, mushrooms, fried bread, baked beans, and fried eggs if vegetarian for a 3/4 Full Breakfast.

Thin slices of black pudding on cutting board, part of traditional Irish and English Full Breakfast.
A healthy Poutine with Sweet potato strips and cream Cheese baked in an oven

Vegetarian Poutine (Canada)

 With just three main ingredients of French fries, cheese curds and gravy, Poutine is certifiably NOT one of the healthiest junk foods. It arguably originated from the mid 20th century in the Quebecian region of Canada. While normally associated with unhealthy dining, this reimagining uses creamy, vegetarian gravy, and sweet potato strips that are baked instead of fried.

Lamington (Australia)

Australians swear by Lamingtons: a delicate, sweet masterpiece made by coating raspberry cake with chocolate ganache and a liberal dusting of coconut flakes. They even have a holiday—National Lamington Day—that miraculously coincides with the US’s National Junk Food Day on July 21st! All the more reason to give these delectable cake bites a go.

Australian lamingtons cake on a wooden board
Dried chicken Jerky, much like Bilton

Vegan Biltong Jerky (South Africa)

Biltong, similar to beef jerky, has an interesting history. Dutch travelers visiting  South Africa often preserved their meat for the long sea voyages. When they introduced spices like cloves, pepper and coriander, Biltong was adopted by the locals and became a popular snack for the next several centuries, and is still going strong! This version, while keeping the same spirit of vinegar-soaked meat intact, suggests eggplant as an excellent plant-based alternative.

Wasabi & Seaweed Popcorn (Japan)

A multi-ethnic fusion food snack, and one of the healthiest junk foods on this list, this recipe features light and airy, naturally healthy popped corn kernels with a host of Japanese-inspired ingredients. You can replace the wasabi almonds with roasted soybeans if you prefer!

wasabi popcorn with nori - https___www.sbs.com.au_food_recipes_wasabi-popcorn-nori

Another of the world’s healthiest junk foods are these dark chocolate walnut butter cups. To say that I’ve been a fan of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups for most of my childhood is an understatement. At the grocery checkout, my eyes always gravitated toward Reese’s line of products. They are one of the simpler candies with just two main ingredients, which is part of their charm. But while milk chocolate and peanut butter may taste great together, they are the least healthy versions of those food categories. You can swap the milk for dark, and the peanuts for walnuts, to turn a sugar-fueled road trip snack into a regular midmorning pick-me-up while still basking in the nostalgia of pleasant childhood memories.

The beauty of this transition lies not only in the walnuts, but also in the dark chocolate. Walnuts are a wonderful provider of antioxidants, healthy fats, and anti-inflammation on their own. However, when paired with flavanol-rich, disease-fighting dark chocolate, your mind and body won’t even be able to tell you’re indulging in a treat instead of a health bar. You can make these cups using this recipe:

Dark Chocolate Walnut Butter Cups

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Time: 30 minutes
Serves: 6-8 people
Level: Intermediate
Close up shot of dark chocolate walnut butter cups with flaked sea salt garnish on wooden table.
Debth, Jennifer. “Dark chocolate walnut butter cups.” Show Me The Yummy, March 19, 2018, https://showmetheyummy.com/dark-chocolate-walnut-butter-cups-recipe/. Accessed June 2021.
Ingredients
Instructions
  • 2 cups walnuts
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Sea salt for garnish
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 10 oz package dark chocolate chips (70% or higher)
  • 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  1. Pre-heat oven to 350F/180C, then line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and next the walnuts. Bake for 10 minutes, then remove from the oven.
  2. Add your toasted walnuts to a food processor and pulse with the salt, 2 tablespoons of oil, maple syrup and vanilla extract, scraping down the sides occasionally. You have walnut butter!
  3. Melt the chocolate chips with 1 tablespoon of the oil in the microwave. While waiting, line a mini muffin tin with mini liners.
  4. Spoon the melted chocolate 1 teaspoon at a time into each liner. Fully coat the sides, then harden the chocolate in the fridge for 15 minutes.
  5. Now, add a tablespoon of the walnut butter to each liner and flatten with the back of the spoon. Add the last teaspoon of chocolate to each liner, and garnish with sea salt.
  6. Cool in your fridge for at least 2 hours. Serve and enjoy!
Don’t forget to add flaked sea salt to garnish these puppies!
Group of friends smiling, laughing, and enjoying meal together at dining venue.

The Plant-Based Movement: Restaurant Edition

Growing up, whenever my family had a particularly satisfying dish my father would be unable to resist making comments like “now this is comfort food” or “this food sticks to your stomach”. I realize now that these phrases are probably what best encapsulate the feeling of eating junk food or fast food: it’s warming, soothing, and just feels so right (in the moment at least).
With that being said, this feeling does not have to come from unhealthy ingredients in the dish being served. Some restaurants have acknowledged this comfort food aspect, understand its wide appeal, and have found a way to incorporate it into their menu items without sacrificing the healthiness of the meal, for the individual or the environment. They recognized that the “junk” part of junk food can be more about the taste than the quality.
These restaurants are quite numerous, but not nearly at a level of fame I would call ubiquitous. Still, they have developed several strategies to stand out from competitors and accelerate the already rapidly developing plant-based movement. The common themes I have picked up are:
  • Vegetable-focused, locally sourced, seasonal menus
  • Desire to resolve personal health epidemics
  • Desire to mitigate environmental issues
  • Well-chosen partnerships, such as with Beyond Meat and local farmers

Plant Power Fast Food

Of the restaurants serving the healthiest junk foods, this one takes the cake as the junkiest (and I mean that in a good way, considering their approach). From chicken tendies, fries, and milkshakes to more vegetable-focused offerings like wraps and salads, Plant Power Fast Food sticks to its roots while emphasizing how meat substitutes can be simply sublime. Their drive stems from the desire to cut down on the unfathomable amount of greenhouse gases emitted, and land and water used with the more traditional means of production.

They have recognized the trend of carnivorous fast food eaters opting for plant-based options, and have successfully adapted, considering how for average unit volume it is “one of the top 10 fast food restaurants in the US”, says founder Jeffrey Harris.

Veggie Grill

Founded in 2006, Veggie Grill has risen to become the most influential and largest vegan restaurant chain in the US. The chain emphasizes indulgent, flavorful foods with its Beyond Meat partnership but uses sustainable business practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make some of the healthiest junk foods out there.

Founder T.K. Pillan recognized a disconnect between vegan food, which is good for us, and fast food, which is obviously delicious but a cause of heart disease, diabetes and high healthcare costs. But since Veggie Grill’s inception, he contends that the vegan restaurant scene has experienced remarkable growth. “We’re at a point where almost 50% of people now want to eat more plant-based foods”, Pillan says. Pretty stellar, if you ask me.

Dig

The aptly named Dig, formerly Dig Inn, is a fast-casual restaurant founded in 2011 that works closely with small-scale farmers and knows each of them personally (larger distributors are a no go). They stress on mindful sourcing of food, in the sense that the food locally and seasonally available to them—including bottom-of-the-bin produce nobody else wants—gets considered first before new recipes are invented by staff.

Indeed, at its core, CEO and founder Adam Eskin reveals that Dig’s mission is to embody a farm-to-table identity as a restaurant and brand. As he claims in an interview, “the most important and the most difficult thing that has needed to be done…is creating demand for this type of food”.

They also endeavor to transition to a better future for all by reducing food waste through repurposing, for example by shaving uglier root vegetables collected from nearby farms into salads. The same is true with their use of less than perfect, but fully functional cuts of meat.

As I navigated their website, I especially loved going through their blog because I discovered a few ingenious recipes that became instant favorites. During my next shopping trip, I loaded up on all the ingredients to surprise my family. I started off with red beet chips for happy hour, then transitioned to sweet potato and ricotta gnocchi, and capped off the night by serving an unusually rich lemon-glazed zucchini cake. I find that the greatest beauty in their blog, or recipe catalogue if you want to call it that, is how easy it is to mix and match these healthiest junk foods to make your National Junk Food Day as fresh, different, and unique as possible.

Inside view of “Dig Inn” healthy fast casual restaurant with modern aesthetic, well-organized space.
 

“Health-conscious Brooklynites dig new concept.” REW, March 28, 2018, https://rew-online.com/health-conscious-brooklynites-dig-new-concept/. Accessed June 2021.

A Sizzling History of Junk Food

The concept of junk food has a spotty history at best. A historian might inform you that it began in the 1800s with the rise of packaged food, or in 1951, when the term fast food was first added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Or, that it developed between 1921 with the inception of White Castle, arguably the first ever fast food chain, or the 1970s when Americans started eating out en masse and restaurants exerted more influence than ever before. However, one could also make the argument that all of these dates are wrong, and the idea of a quickly prepared or pre-made, generally cheaper meal dates all the way back to ancient Rome, with wine-soaked bread sold on the street.
To me, however, there are two things that matter more than these historical dates. The first is that fast food certainly did not originate in the US, as it is commonly speculated. Fish and chip shops sprung up in the UK as early as 1860. The second is fast food’s slow rise of being associated with unhealthy eating; things did not start off this way.  Fast foods were originally conceptualized for the poorer individuals of cities, like those of 2nd century Ancient Rome, who could not afford to prepare their own meals because they lacked a kitchen.
Child preparing macaroni and cheese meal for family, with grandfather watching excitedly.
It is interesting to highlight how this reasoning has been flipped on its head. Ever since McDonald’s entered the scene, quickly followed by other chains, global fast food consumers have visited them primarily for the sake of convenience (time-wise), not cost-effectiveness or necessity. Mark Bittman, a cookbook author and writer for the New York Times, conducted an experiment in which he compared the costs of a fast food meal for a family of four with several home-cooked meals. He discovered that home meals like rice and beans with peppers and bacon, or roast chicken, potatoes and a salad, were $18 and $14 cheaper, respectively. With this knowledge, you can rest assured that cooking meals for yourself or your family on the regular will not drain your wallet anytime soon. Just remember to shop for filling, wholesome, preferable ingredients (lentils have entered the chat).
To celebrate National Junk Food Day, you don’t need to make sacrifices to your health or the environment’s, because “junk” can simply mean a savory, feel-good meal that just hits the spot. In the past couple decades, restaurant chains have popped up offering the healthiest junk foods you can find. And as the world’s favorite healthy snacks have shown, there is a surprising amount of history and variety of taste sensations to learn about and experience in your very own kitchen.
Tag us on Instagram @cookandculture with the international snack foods you decide to try!

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Olivia deGregory

Written by Case Vanderburg