A Slow Burn on Fast Food

Related articles

The following piece appeared in the May 6, 2006 Washington Times:

Fast food is under increasing attack. It has become the perfect scapegoat for our nation's obesity crisis. Critics argue that the consumption of burgers, fries, soda, nuggets, and pizza explain why Americans -- including kids -- are so fat. Never mind that obesity is the result of over-consumption of calories from all sources (and the majority of meals daily are eaten at home, not at fast food establishments), combined with a lack of sufficient exercise to burn those calories.

For every complex problem there is a simple solution -- which turns out be wrong. In the simple drama unfolding about obesity, the role of villain is currently being played by McDonald's, Burger King, and other vendors who can quickly serve up tasty, inexpensive, and often calorically-dense food.

The heat in the debate about fast food is about to be turned up significantly as critics try a new approach, communicating the message directly to children, telling them that Happy Meals are really very sad indeed.

In a forthcoming book, Chew on This --aimed at pre-teenagers -- Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, launches a multi-faceted attack on fast food and the companies that advertise and sell it. Schlosser hope parents will buy this book for their kids. Here is why they should not:

First, Schlosser (who is a journalist, not a doctor) repeatedly argues that the food served at McDonald's and other such restaurants is inherently different, less nutritious, and unsafe. This message is false. The fare served at all reputable outlets of this type is wholesome, basic food served up in a particularly tasty and appealing manner.

There is, for example, essentially no difference in terms of fat, sodium, and calories between a lunch consisting of a cheeseburger, fries, and soda devoured under the golden arches versus a broiled ground chuck burger with cheese, a large baked potato with butter and salt, and a standard beverage consumed in Mom's kitchen -- except that the serving size of the burger at home may be considerably larger.

The author's repeated pejorative reference to "chemicals" in fast food (for example, harping on the "59 ingredients" in a strawberry milkshake) only takes advantage of the naivete of kids (and probably their parents, too) about the fact that all food, processed or natural, is 100% comprised of chemicals (there are over 150 natural chemicals in a potato). And the suggestion that fast foods are unsafe in other ways flies in the face of the strictly enforced standard protocols for food handling and cooking in these establishments, which reduce the probability of food-borne disease to nearly zero. Certainly the same cannot be said about home-cooked food.

Second, the author claims that fast food is so dangerous and inappropriate for kids that it should not be advertised, just as "you can't market alcohol to children, or cigarettes or guns" -- as if there were anything at all in common between alcohol, cigarettes, guns, and food.

Third, Schlosser takes on socio-economic issues that are totally inappropriate for children, and he does so in a deliberately distorted fashion. For example, he manipulates his readers into distress and anxiety with his claims that McDonald's exploits children by offering them low-paying jobs, even citing an example of a teenager who has to get up very early in the morning on frigid weekend mornings to flip burgers. He also claims, without evidence, that these restaurants both promote dangerous working conditions at slaughterhouses and promote cruelty to animals.

Eric Schlosser hates fast foods. But a careful read of his books on the subject confirms that what he really hates are big, successful corporations, their efficiency, and, of course, their associated profits. He despises the fact that kids -- and adults -- love burgers, fries, and shakes -- since he thinks McDonald's should just be serving fruits, vegetables, and water. Chew on This may do well on the talk show rounds, as critics get a chance to lament the nation's obesity crisis and take their frustrations out on their favorite corporate punching bags. But this book should be off-limit to kids. Or at least it should carry a full-disclosure label that reads "Contains super-sized helpings of hype, opinion, misinformation, and scare tactics."