Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Watch out! McDonaldisation in progress

The Straits Times yesterday reported that fast food chains are expanding in Singapore, in light of the recession. This is in line with trends in the West - in bad economic times, fast food popularity surges because the food is cheap compared to restaurants.

I see this is bad news all around, except for the fast food companies. Most parents have this vague notion that fast food is unhealthy, but apart from it containing lots of fat, that's it. I mean, chicken rice and char guay teow are also extremely fattening, right? So what's the big deal? Well, let me introduce you to the evil empire that is fast food.

First, let me qualify that my reference to fast food is mostly burger joints, not the quick serve pasta or Japanese fast food places. In particular, I'm refering to McDonald's, the king of fast food. No need for me to go into the fat content in fast food - I guess you know already that it's high, especially in trans fats. I'll give you some other nuggets (haha!) of information.

Have you ever wondered why the McDonald's fries taste so good? It's because of their unique beef taste. Before 1990, McDonald's fries were fried in beef tallow which made them contain more beef fat than a hamburger. Following criticism over the cholesterol in the fries, McDonald's switched to vegetable oil but they also added an artificial beef flavour made entirely from chemicals to replicate the taste.

The worst thing you can order at McDonald's though, has to be chicken McNuggets. They're popular because they're easy to chew and appear to be healthier than other items since they're made of chicken. Well, get this. Researchers found that McNuggets too contain more fat per ounce than a hamburger. The same "beef flavour" added to fries is added to McNuggets to give them the yummy aroma. But the worst part is this: according to the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, McNuggets are made from mashed up parts of genetically modified chicken with unusually large breasts. These chickens are stripped down to the bone, and then "ground up in to a chicken mash then combined with a variety of stabilizers and preservatives, pressed into familiar shapes, breaded and deep fried, freeze dried, and then shipped to a McDonald's near you." If you read the raw ingredients listing on the wholesale packaging of McNuggets, chicken breast accounts for less than 50% of the product.

If you've never watched Super Size Me, I recommend you do. It will scare the living daylights out of you. You can watch the video here. As part of a social experiment, independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate exclusively McDonald's food for a month, super sizing his meal every time he was asked. Before the experiment started, he consulted three doctors, a nutritionist and personal trainer. All of them said the experiment would have some impact of the body but thought it wouldn't be too drastic as the human body was very adaptable.

After five days, Spurlock gained 4.5kg and reported feeling depressed and lethargic, which he said was relieved by a McDonald's meal. One doctor described him as "addicted". Three weeks in, Spurlock experienced heart palpitations, at which point his doctors started expressing concern over his health. By the end of the experiment, Spurlock had gained over 11kg and sustained IRREVERSIBLE LIVER DAMAGE. In just one month. All three doctors were surprised at the degree of deterioration in Spurlock's health. Fast food companies have slammed his experiment saying that hardly anyone eats McDonald's three meals a day, everyday. In his own defence, Spurlock theorised that his diet is typical of the amount of fast food an average American would eat over eight years.

Spurlock also took issue with the way McDonald's targets young children with ads. McDonald's spends approximately US$1.4 billion annually on advertising, most of which is directed at young kids. This view is mirrored in the book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, an investigative journalist. In the book, Schlosser states that the Golden Arches are more widely recognised as a symbol by American children than the Christian cross, and Ronald McDonald more than Jesus. In Australia, a survey showed that Ronald McDonald is viewed by half the country's 9 and 10 year-olds as the ultimate authority on what they should eat. As Spurlock says, if you look closely, Ronald McDonald is not wearing a smile, he's wearing a smirk.

McDonald's operates more playgrounds than any other private entity in the US, and the fast food industry competes for marketing partnerships with toy companies, sports leagues and Hollywood studios - all to entice children, parents and grandparents to their outlets. It is insidious, it is calculated, it is deliberate. It strives to create that feel-good factor among young kids whose food preferences are still forming, so that they associate happiness with a meal at McDonald's. An experiment showed that when kids were given two lots of identical fries but one presented in a McDonald's wrapper and the other in a plain wrapper, all the kids said the McDonald's one tasted better. Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's has been quoted as saying, "A child who loves our TV commercials and brings her grandparents to a McDonald's gives us two more customers."

The fast food industry is a multi-billion dollar one. It is so large and powerful that it influences whole sectors of the economy. It lobbies for fast food to be sold in US schools, for a relaxation in food safety testing by the FDA. It hires people on the lowest rungs of the workforce - migrant workers, the uneducated, teenagers, the elderly, which makes it appear magnanimous because it provides employment. But really, the motivation is purely monetary. It gets cheap labour, often at minimum wage, and in the US, the employees at the slaughterhouses for the fast food industry are working in what Schlosser describes as the "most dangerous job". They get no benefits and serious injuries are rife. Injuries often don't get reported, injured workers get their pay cut and are shipped out as fast as the next batch of workers can be brought in.

I'm not naive enough to propose that you abstain from fast food completely. God knows we too go to McDonald's once in a while, and Andre loves it. But moderation is the operative word. And I personally believe that moderation is once or twice a month at the most, not once or twice a week. If cost is the reason, there really is no excuse in Singapore because eating out is relatively cheap here. A bowl of wanton noodles and a drink at the coffee shop cost less than a McDonald's meal (and it's much healthier too). If it's because fast food has become comfort food, just remember that with every bite of that burger, you are endorsing a whole ideology that is not as sunshiney as Ronald would have you believe.


Alcovelet said...

Omigod. I almost spat out last Friday's fries when I read this. I know it's bad but never bothered to find out HOW bad. This is akin to the adding of narcotics and addictive chemicals to cigarettes, except this time, it's targeted at the public in general, young and old.

And the cost to the labour force- is this legal???

This isn't less offensive and deceitful than the Chinese milk scandal; only more insidious. I feel sorry for the legions of teenagers who got snared as young kids and now need their weekly fix.

monlim said...

Exactly, this advertising fast food to kids has been likened to tobacco advertising. Fast food companies have protested, claiming that fast food is not as addictive as tobacco. But it's a thin line. After Super Size Me was released, McDonald's started offering "healthier" choices although they claimed it was not due to the show. But you know, the salads have been found to be equally unhealthy once you pour the dressing on! Sigh...

Lilian said...

My Super Size Me dvd came free with a copy of some London newspaper, and I made the boys watch it with me. They still love their fries and most things McD though, I think it's time to play that dvd again. Y'know, if you didn't say so, I would have continued thinking nuggets were the most nutritious choice in the menu. Very informative and eye-opening post. Thanks!

bACk in GERMANY said...

Thanks for the info on nuggets... that's the only thing my kids go for... fries only 5 - 6 pieces.

Actually, I always like BK fries better. Probably with even more beef flavour?

Ok... i shall not say that char kway teow is equally unhealthy anymore. And yes... now, I'm thankful my kids aren't big on fast food, so far so good... But there's no telling what they'll choose for themselves when they grow up... am still hoping that they will learn to like their veggies and greens one day.

Anonymous said...

I always see the corelation of unusually big-size-kids-for-their age or kids who accelerate fast in their growth against their genetic blueprint to the Mcdonalds food.

I am inclined to believe that the chicken has alot to do with the early puberty of the children these days too. But alas, it has built up such an empire by will take years to undo this.

Only can thank God that my child is not into its food. Only once in a blue moon, for a convenient meal we take a fishburger.


monlim said...

Cindy: it's an uphill battle - in Super Size Me, they mentioned that the amount of advertising spent on promoting fruit and veg in diets was a miniscule fraction of that advertising fast food. So it's still up to us parents to nag, cajole, persuade our kids to eat their greens!

QX: I agree with you, the kids I see that live on a diet of fast food tend to be unusually big and sluggish. The long term effects are scary and by then, the kids are so hooked it's impossible to break that habit!

Anonymous said...

Oh those blasted golden arches with their cute little toys that come with the Happy Meals!

Guilty as charged - my kids do have MacDs as weekend snacks often enough ...we tend not to watch their diets as much when eating out 'cause they have pretty healthy daily meals at home.

Oh...those french fries can be so addictive ! Ok - time to cut down -sob !

petite fleur said...

France may be the one of the few places on earth where McDonald's & Starbucks never really made it very big. Thank god for the French stubborness. There is a McD's nearby but it's not all that popular. In the 5 years I'm here, I've only gone there 3 times.

Side : I'm a friend of the MD of McDonald's Singapore

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