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Food for a nation of gulpers

The adjective now most often connected with food is “fast.” We have become a nation of gulpers not taking the time to savor the communion that is a meal. Widespread obesity demonstrates poor diets in the richest country on earth. As a fast food nation, critics say, we are poisoning our children at worst; at best, fattening them and teaching them the wrong values.

Indeed, fast food has infiltrated every corner of American life. An industry that began with a local hamburger shop in San Bernardino, Calif., 47 years ago has spread around the world. According to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Americans spent $110 billion in 2000 on fast food, more than on higher education, personal computers, software or new cars.

America’s service economy creates 90 percent of all new jobs, and most of those are in the fast food realm. McDonald’s now has 28,000 restaurants worldwide; 2,000 new ones each year raise the golden arches. One out of every eight workers in the United States, it is estimated, has been employed by McDonald’s. McDonald’s is the world’s largest purchaser of beef, pork and potatoes and second largest of chicken. It’s the largest owner of retail property in the world and has replaced Coca Cola as the world’s most famous brand. The golden arches are better known around the world now than the Christian cross, according to Schlosser.

The “dark side” of the fast food industry is less well known, he says. The vast majority of workers in the fast food industry “receive no benefits, learn few skills, exercise little control over their workplace, quit after a few months.” The restaurant industry is now America’s largest private employer and it pays some of the lowest wages. The only Americans who consistently earn a lower hourly wage are migrant farm workers, according to Schlosser.

The spread of fast food represents the greatest revolution in eating since the discovery of the potato. There is a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise a stone’s throw from the Sphinx in Egypt, a McDonald’s in the Eiffel Tower. The McDonald’s franchise recently opened in Pushkin Square in Moscow is said to be the busiest in the world, selling to babushkas burgers that look and taste exactly like the ones in Phoenix or Houston.

“Food that may look familiar has in fact been completely reformulated,” says Schlosser. “Today’s fast food conceals remarkable technological advances behind an ordinary-looking façade. Much of the taste and aroma of American fast food, for example, is now manufactured at a series of large chemical plants off the New Jersey Turnpike.” The actual food served is so processed and denatured that these tactics are necessary.

“It has been carefully designed to taste good. That is one of the main reasons people buy fast food. It’s also inexpensive and convenient,” writes Schlosser. “But the value meals, the two for one deals, the free refills of soda give a distorted sense of how much fast food really costs. The real price never appears on the menu.”

One of those hidden costs is a weight problem. We are becoming a nation of fat behinds and paunchy stomachs.

Early in the 20th century, the principal causes of death and disability in the United States were infectious diseases related in part to low caloric intake. Now, nutritionists point out, many health problems are related to overconsumption of calories. Overeating, according to Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, “deranges metabolism, makes people overweight and increases the likelihood of ‘chronic’ diseases, like hypertension, coronary heart disease, certain cancers, stroke and others.” The calories provided by the U.S. food supply have increased from 3,300 per capita in 1970 to 3,800 in the late 1990s, an increase of 500 per day.

“Our diet is out of balance,” Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, told NCR, “and it’s partly due to the food industry telling us in a thousand different ways to eat more, providing ever larger portions of food that is high in calories, fat and sugar.”

The worst aspect of this manipulation is the way it exploits children, according to Nestle. “Food companies view schoolchildren as an unparalleled marketing opportunity. In exchange for advertising, corporations contribute resources desperately needed by financially strapped school systems. They don’t stop at advertising either. In 1997, 30 percent of public high schools sold fast foods from one or another of nine chains.”

Nestle advocates the tactics of the international Slow Food movement, begun in Italy in 1986 (its logo is a snail). Its manifesto urges the public to “rediscover the flavors and savors of regional food cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food.” By our choices, we support or do not support the current food system every time we eat a meal.

-- Rich Heffern

National Catholic Reporter, May 24, 2002