Jane Ahlin column: A 'fast food nation' is a fat nation
A good paperback book to read this cold weekend is "Fast Food Nation." In the words of its author Eric Schlosser, it "is a book about fast food, the values it embodies, and the world it has made." From the how and why of its devel...
A good paperback book to read this cold weekend is "Fast Food Nation." In the words of its author Eric Schlosser, it "is a book about fast food, the values it embodies, and the world it has made." From the how and why of its development to the politics of agribusiness; from the world of manufactured tastes to the unabashed manipulation of children; from the plight of workers in low-skill, low-paying jobs to the global impact of American fast food franchises, the underside of cheap, convenient food that he articulates is vast and disturbing. It brings to mind an old book, "The Hidden Persuaders," written by Vance Packard in 1957 -- a book that continues to echo as a warning about the downside of advertising that manipulates us psychologically.
"Fast Food Nation" is well-footnoted and brings together information from the past decade. We've read elsewhere that eating a Big Mac with a large order of fries and large soda is downing 60 grams of fat and 1,400 calories, that a Burger King Double Whopper with cheese is 1,010 calories all by itself, or, even that the average American eats three hamburgers and four orders of french fries each and every week of the year.
The accompanying (astounding) growth of obesity in America is not news to us, either. We know that the percentage of overweight children and teenagers has tripled in the past 30 years and that the rate of obesity in the adult population increased dramatically from 12 percent in 1991 to 18 percent in 1998. Annual health care costs tied to obesity "approach $240 billion" with another "$33 billion" spent for "various weight loss schemes and diet products."
Schlosser mentions Japan, where obesity was an oddity until American fast food hit their shores, and says, "Between 1984 and 1993 the number of fast food restaurants in Great Britain roughly doubled -- and so did the obesity rate among adults." Schlosser takes the story further, explaining how flavorings (scientifically created) and fat (fast food's mainstay) are fast food's magic ingredients. He also ties fast food "kiddie meals" to the double whammy of marketing to children while developing their taste for the fats in fast food before they even talk in complete sentences. (But his book predates the push for tobacco-industry-type lawsuits against fast food purveyors).
Schlosser's facts about the profit margin on potatoes isn't news in farm country where it comes as no surprise that of every $1.50 charged for french fries, only two cents goes to the farmer. (And don't read his discussion of the meatpacking industry and ecoli and salmonella if you have a queasy stomach).
And yet, the overall impact of Schlosser's book is that it ties our national gastronomy to a mindset recognized almost half a century ago by people like pop sociologist Vance Packard. In short, selling us psychologically appealing and comforting food makes us sluggish and unhealthy. We buy into uniformity that ultimately isn't good for us. For Schlosser, it's America's "bland essence" typified by the integration of Disney and McDonalds for "the Happy Meal at the Happiest Place on Earth." For him, it's watching every aspect of American life -- including many schools -- succumb to corporate sponsorships (tying consumerism to virtue).
His final wish is that the "new century may bring impatience with conformity ... more compassion, less speed ... a sense of humor about brand essences and loyalties ..."
Now, that's food for thought.
Ahlin teaches English as an adjunct faculty member at Minnesota State University Moorhead and is a regular contributor to The Forum's commentary pages.