There has been a veritable bonanza of news stories over the past few weeks concerning the fast food and junk food industries. We're talking about studies detailing the influence of cartoons, advertising, and internet promotions for fast food, government subsidies and infiltrated nutrition committees, and city bans on fast food toys -- not to mention studies showing how you can lose weight and improve your cholesterol and triglyceride numbers on a pure junk food diet. And since one of my primary functions in life is railing against junk food, it's been like Christmas come early. Over the course of this newsletter, I'm going to tie together all of these disparate stories and explain the good, the bad, and the unmentionable about junk food and fast food. So without further ado:
Cartoons, advertising, fast food
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity released their study evaluating fast food nutrition and marketing to youth. At 208 pages, the study serves as a damning indictment of the fast food industry. Among other conclusions, the study found:
- The fast food industry spent more than $4.2 billion in 2009 on advertising.
- The average preschooler (2-5 years) saw 2.8 TV ads for fast food every day in 2009; children (6-11 years) saw 3.5; and teens (12-17 years) saw 4.7.
- McDonald's web-based marketing starts focusing on children as young as age 2 at www.Ronald.com. In fact, McDonald's and Burger King have created sophisticated websites with 60 to 100 pages of advergames and virtual worlds to engage children (www.McWorld.com, www.HappyMeal.com, and www.ClubBK.com).
- Nine restaurant Facebook pages had more than one million fans as of July 2010, and Starbucks boasted more than 11.3 million fans.
- McDonald's and KFC specifically targeted African American youth with TV advertising, websites, and banner ads. African American teens viewed 75% more TV ads for McDonald's and KFC compared to white teens.
- Forty percent of parents reported that their child asks to go to McDonald's at least once a week; 15% of preschoolers ask to go every day.
- Just 12 of 3,039 possible kids' meal combinations met nutrition criteria for preschoolers; 15 met nutrition criteria for older children.
In its executive summary, the study asserted. "Young people must consume less of the calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods served at fast food restaurants. Parents and schools can do more to teach children how to make healthy choices. Above all, fast food restaurants must drastically change their current marketing practices so that children and teens do not receive continuous encouragement to seek out food that will severely damage their health. In addition, when young people visit, the restaurants should do more to encourage the purchase of more healthful options."
So what's not to like about the study? As it turns out, plenty!
Benjamin Radford, professional skeptic and critical thinker, blasts the study for one glaring omission in his article for Discovery News, tellingly titled, Junk Food Studies Ignore Parent Responsibility. As Radford says:
"Do ads make kids want things? Of course they do. But parents, not fast food chains, have near-total control over what their kids eat. If parents can't say no to little Billy when he says he wants a Happy Meal, that's not McDonald's fault; that's poor parenting.
"It's obvious why these reports focus almost exclusively on the fast food business. People hate advertisements and big corporations, and the fast food industry is a big target. The reports are written for parents, and those parents are unlikely to accept and embrace a study that blames them for what their kids eat (‘our best advice is to not feed your child junk food')."
The facts stated in the Rudd study actually support Radford's conclusions, even though the study's authors ignored those facts in their recommendation. According to the Rudd study:
- Eighty-four percent of parents reported taking their child to a fast food restaurant at least once in the past week; 66% reported going to McDonald's.
So why did the study not hold parents accountable? Radford summed it up quite nicely in his article, "It's much easier (and more socially acceptable) to place the blame on corporations and advertisers."
Unfortunately, like the study itself, Radford ignores some underlying truths that make reality far more nuanced than either: "blame the fast food marketers" or in Radford's case, "blame the parents."
The problems with fast food are nuanced
It is important to understand that fast food companies do not lead children to bad habits. They follow them there -- and then exploit those habits to maximize profits. To put it simply, corporations follow the money. In that sense, advertising is more reactive than proactive. For example, fast food advertisers followed the market into the inner city -- then exploited it. The reason fast food corporations specifically target African American youth with TV advertising is because they "emerged" as ready buyers of their product. As Walter Pitchford, a McDonald's manager on Chicago's West Side said in the book Black Enterprise, "In the inner city, a McDonalds ceases to be a restaurant and becomes more like a supermarket. You see some of the same children five or six times a day, and adults, too, drop in twice or three times. The store is more of a necessity to the community than a place for treats." A company would be fiscally irresponsible not to chase after a market that dedicated.
There is nothing new here. I've stated for years that stores and markets offer what we buy. They feature sodas and snacks in their power aisles, not because they are trying to destroy the world's health, but because they are high profit items that people can't seem to get enough of. Supermarkets sell soft drinks because soft drinks are a $61 billion dollar a year business. If people stopped buying soft drinks and snacks and opted en masse for kombucha tea and sun-dried vegetable chips, that's what you'd find in your supermarket power aisles.
Even now, organic has become a hot marketing term. So, as if on cue, mega-corporations like Heinz, PepsiCo, and Kraft are busily gobbling up small, dedicated, organic food producing companies. McDonald's has turned itself into the world's biggest seller of salads. And as more and more consumers now view high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) with a jaundiced eye, companies like Pepsi and Snapple have announced that they are going HFCS free…at least on some of their products. They won't actually abandon HFCS completely until consumer buying patterns tell them it makes sense to do so. And despite the salads, McDonald's is now pushing the McRib sandwich with its 26 g of fat because people buy it. Just add a large order of fries and a Coke to that and you've got a killer meal.
The bottom line here is that consumption of fast foods is the fault of neither corporations nor consumers alone. They are locked together in a symbiotic Danse Macabre. Like a drug pusher and a heroin user, neither can exist without the other. And while we're at it, let's not forget the role of government in this affair. Even as politicians make pompous noise about taxing and banning unhealthy foods (more on that later), they subsidize the very industries they excoriate.
- Government corn subsidies push HFCS down your throat because subsidies make the foods made with HFCS that much cheaper to buy.
- Even as the government tells us that cigarettes are harmful and spends hundreds of millions of dollars trying to convince us not to smoke, it supports the tobacco industry with hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies that help keep smoke pouring into our children's lungs. Oh, in case you thought tobacco subsidies are a thing of the past, you're wrong. They're back and scheduled to continue to at least 2014.
- And then there's the fast food industry. As Eric Schlosser said in his book Fast Food Nation, "The fast food industry has worked closely with its allies in Congress and the White House to oppose new worker safety, food safety, and minimum wage laws. While publicly espousing support for the free market, the fast food chains have quietly pursued and greatly benefited from a wide variety of government subsidies. Far from being inevitable, America's fast food industry in its present form is the logical outcome of certain political and economic choices."
And right on cue, the US Government has just granted an exemption to the fast food industry out of the healthcare reform act so they can continue to offer less than minimal healthcare to their workers. This will ultimately save them many millions of dollars -- so they can continue to offer you unhealthy food at a discount not shared by the manufacturers of healthy food.
Fox in the henhouse
But the problems don't stop there. The fast food industry has managed to finagle its way into the heart of the debate on healthy food and health in general. It's not just a matter of having the political muscle to force the US Government to grant them an exemption from the healthcare reform act. No indeed! In fact, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), McDonald's and the snack food industry managed to get their PR firm, Porter Novelli International, positioned as the designer of the USDA Food Pyramid. Incidentally, the PCRM actually filed suit against the USDA because six of the 11 members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee have financial ties to the food industry. And if that's not enough, just a few days ago, the UK Department of Health announced that it has invited McDonald's and KFC, along with PepsiCo, Kellogg's, Unilever, Mars, and Diageo, to suggest government policy measures to help reverse obesity, alcohol and diet-related disease in the UK.
San Francisco Happy Meals ban
Not all government actions support the fast food industry. Some definitely attack it. For example, earlier this month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance requiring meals that include toys with their purchase (can you say Happy Meals) to meet specific nutritional guidelines.
Under the ordinance, a restaurant may not provide an incentive item [that is, toy] linked to the purchase of a single food item or meal if the single food item or meal includes any of the following as defined in the ordinance:
- Excessive calories -- more than 200 for a single item, 600 for a meal). Well that pretty much rules out 99% of all menu items from fast food chains from McDonalds to Panera.
- Excessive sodium -- more than 480 mg per single item, 640 for a meal. Again, that rules out 99% of most fast food menus.
- Excessive fat, including saturated fat, and trans fat exceeding 0.5 grams. (This is waived for fats from nuts, seeds, nut butters, individually served eggs, and low fat cheese.)
In addition, a meal must also contain at least 0.5 cups or more of fruits and 0.75 cups or more of vegetables. (By the way, sweetened applesauce counts as fruit and French fries count as vegetables.)
So what's the problem? This certainly seems reasonable, and many in the alternative health community support it.
My problem is the same as I've always expressed. It's not that I'm inherently against the state inserting itself into health and nutrition in our lives. Hey, if they could do it well, I wouldn't oppose it. There's no question but that it would be helpful to have a powerful, well-financed entity working to counteract the billions of dollars corporations spend marketing deadly "food" to the world. But as little as I trust medical doctors, the media, and corporations to get things right when it comes to our health, I trust politicians far, far less. As a rule, they know nothing about health and nutrition. They are merely bandwagon jumpers, looking to score political points and find yet another way to pick our pockets. And like the proverbial camel, once they get their nose in the tent, it's impossible to get rid of them.
I expressed this frustration in my Counting Camels newsletter that responded to the NYC Health Department ban on trans fatty acids in foods (a ban since replicated in a number of other cities and states). So what's the problem with banning trans fats; they're bad, aren't they? And the answer is not necessarily. Synthetic trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils are bad, but natural trans fats such as MCT's and CLA are extremely healthy -- a distinction lost on publicity seeking legislators. A general ban on trans fats means that a restaurant can't add these oils to foods or cook with coconut oil (one of the healthiest oils for cooking) for that matter. Politicians do not understand the nuances of health. In addition, by forcing restaurant to use more refined, high Omega-6, commercial vegetable oils in their cooking, government is actually promoting heart attacks by increasing NEFA levels in the human body. The imbalance caused by excessive consumption of high Omega-6 vegetable oils is at least as great a health threat as saturated fats and trans fatty acids. So forget nuance, politicians and their medical advisors don't even understand the basics of health and nutrition.
And it gets worse. Once the door is opened, politicians then look to top each other by proving that they're more concerned about your health than any other politician. At that point, you truly see signs of government grossly overstepping its boundaries. A case in point is Cocaine Soda, which came out in 2007. Yes, it tasted horrible and was offensive in concept, but it was perfectly legal. Nevertheless, the FDA came down on them claiming that they presented themselves as an "alternative to an illicit street drug." That's utter nonsense. We're talking about a caffeine and sugar drink that played off the "name" cocaine. But then so does Coca Cola. In fact, Coca Cola doesn't just play off the name; the original formula actually contained a significant hit of cocaine. The "live" coca leaves were removed from the formula in the early 1900's, but to this day, Coca-Cola uses as an ingredient a cocaine-free coca leaf extract. Talk about the "real thing." If you're not just trying to score political points by going after Cocaine Soda for connecting with cocaine in their marketing, then you have to come after Coke too. But no, it was just about using health as a political football -- about trying to score some of those political points, some of those newspaper headlines, that the NYC Health Department scored when they came down on trans fatty acids.
And to top it off, the State of Connecticut actually seized cases of Cocaine Soda off the shelves, claiming the water used in it wasn't certified. At that point, we were looking at government run amok, trampling on legal rights, and the camel no longer just had his nose in the tent; he had taken over the tent.
And then there's the study just announced a couple of weeks ago that showed that you could lose weight, and dramatically improve your cholesterol and triglyceride numbers while eating nothing but the worst junk foods -- as long as you limited the total number of calories.
You might want to reread that last paragraph again since it turns everything you thought you knew about junk food upside down.
For 10 weeks, instead of meals, Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University, ate a Twinkie, a nutty bar, or a powdered donut every three hours. For variety, he also munched on Doritos chips, sugary cereals and Oreos. Two-thirds of his total intake came from junk food. He also took a multivitamin pill, drank a protein shake daily, and ate a can of green beans or three to four celery stalks each day. Despite subsisting primarily on junk food and not exercising, he limited his calories to a maximum of 1,800 a day. After two months, the result:
- He lost 27 lbs.
- His body mass index dropped from an overweight 28.8 to 24.9, considered normal for his size.
- His bad LDL cholesterol dropped 20 percent.
- His good HDL cholesterol increased 20 percent.
- And his triglycerides dropped 39 percent.
So, just when you think you know everything about junk food, high glycemic foods, saturated fats, and trans fatty acids, surprise! In the end, calories in VS calories out (as I've been saying for years), turns out to be a primary factor not just in obesity, but in overall health as well.
That said, there's still a world of long-term health issues that make it clear that you don't really want to live long-term on junk food. But still, it's amazing to see how much of the negativity associated with junk food primarily comes down to calories.
In the end, junk food is still junk, and eating it is not conducive to long term health. But calories count even more, so start counting them and get the extra weight off. And if you don't think you can survive on a diet of Twinkies, Big Macs and Duncan Hines Brownies, then go for a Mediterranean diet high in nutrient dense fruits and vegetables -- that is, foods low in calories, but high in nutrition.
Be highly suspicious of government programs designed to regulate your behavior. Be suspicious of trans fatty acid bans. Be suspicious of Happy Meal toy bans. And be suspicious of government programs to levy a special tax on sugared sodas, which will merely encourage more people to drink deadly sugar-free sodas. And even worse, it's incredibly hypocritical.
- The government uses your tax dollars to subsidize the corn industry so they can produce high fructose corn syrup at a discount.
- The beverage companies then use this discounted sweetener to make their sodas that they sell to you. So again, you're paying.
- And now the government wants to charge you a premium tax to help with budget deficits if you buy the drinks they've discounted to encourage you to buy them in the first place. Bottom line: you pay yet again.
If they truly want to raise the cost of sugared sodas to discourage you from buying them, why not just cut the corn subsidies. That will save you double tax payments and raise the cost of the soda so you'll buy less of it. This is a much simpler solution that saves you money, gets government out of your life, and improves your health. And that, of course, is why you are unlikely to ever see it happen.