Consumer v. Fast Food : Who's Guilty for the Obesity Epidemic? (Part 1)
Over the past 30 years, the rate of obesity in the United States has climbed by 20%, with over 30% of Americans now falling into the category. Needless to say, weight gain is a problem that is growing wildly out of hand, but the problem is more than just added weight and fat.
Carried along with all those extra pounds are many serious health risks: cardiovascular disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems, stroke, liver disease, breathing problems, heart attack, the list goes on and on. Approaching the problem, however, is rather complex because when it comes to the cause, blame is pointed in many directions. TV, schools, and stress are all debated causes, but one cause that no one would argue, is the relationship between consumer and fast food.
Is the consumer an innocent victim of a money-hungry fast food market, or are fast food restaurants just providing what the consumer has demanded?
The question requires a closer look at the facts and impartial judgment for an answer. In this article, we'll look at the consumer's case and examine all the ways the fast food industry is setting them up for dietary failure. In the next, we'll hear fast food industry's defense and consider all the ways the consumer is responsible. In the end, I'll let you decide - who's guilty for the obesity epidemic?
A Case for the Consumer
While there are always two sides to a story, the consumer has every right to be angry about the practices of the fast food industry. While they may not profit directly from the creation of overweight, obese customers, the fact remains that their advertising methods can be blatantly and some would say, unscrupulously manipulative - far beyond what is expected of marketing. Big fast food is clearly more concerned with the profitability than the nutritional value of their offerings. Many consumers point an angry finger of blame towards the fast food industry for their part in the obesity epidemic. These issues are just sampling of the reasons why.
Getting at the Kids
While companies in the food industry may need advertising in order to stay competitive, their targeting of children is a controversial practice. In fact, there are several countries that now ban youth targeting outright.
They're pint-sized customers, consumers, influencers, and users with a direct purchase market of $24 billion a year.
Elsewhere however, children are a key part of what the industry calls the "Family-Decision-Making-Unit." They're pint-sized customers, consumers, influencers, and users with a direct purchase market of $24 billion a year.
While these particular consumers are unable buy for themselves, companies have no qualms using the child to make the parents purchase. They have child-geared advertisements down to a science, exploiting the immaturity of their decision-making by degrading healthful foods ("Yuck! Broccoli!"), exaggerating their own product's nutrition, implying that their products will enhance performance in their favorite activity, and overall will make children happier and more popular.
This is no passing trend. In the past 10 years spending on children's advertising has increased five-fold and of the vast amount commercials shown during children's programming, two thirds are for food products. One study showed that in 28.5 hours of children's programming, 950 commercials were shown. This means that children watching the average3 hours of TV a day see about 700 commercials a week.
McDonald's is obviously using this to their advantage.A study highlighted in the book Fast Food Nation found that 96% of American children can identify Ronald McDonald and the only fictional character with more recognition was Santa Claus. McDonald's knows what they're doing with colorful characters, Happy Meals, Toys, and Playplaces. They're tapping into market worth $24 Billion - and creating lifetime customers at the same time.
BOTTOM LINE: Fast food companies manipulating children.
Eating for Your Ego
Children are not the only ones manipulated my marketing tactics. While you may not be able to fool an adult into thinking your food is healthy, maybe you can convince them eating unhealthy, fatty foods is the cooler way to go.
Take Burger King' s recent commercial for example.
A couple is eating together in a fancy restaurant. The man complains aloud "I'm too hungry to settle for chick food!" so he dumps his date and goes to Burger King. Later him and a large group of men, pumped up on Whoppers, bump fists, punch each other, and toss a van off a bridge all the while singing "I will eat this meat until my innie turns into an outie. I am hungry. I am incorrigible. I am man."
It reminds me of that old joke, 'Why did the Egyptians build the pyramids? To impress their girlfriends.
Food psychologist, Brain Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating," comments on the issue. "It reminds me of that old joke, 'Why did the Egyptians build the pyramids? To impress their girlfriends.' That summarizes for me why most guys do stupid things: to impress, if not their girlfriends, somebody, maybe even themselves, and to inject some adventurousness into their otherwise boring and insipid lives."
Emanuel Maidenberg, associate clinical professor of psychiatry and clinical coordinator for UCLA's Anxiety Disorders Program, takes more serious tone as he considers the effect these ads may have."Kids learn to associate large amounts of food with something that's manly, consistent with the image of being cool, and somewhat rebellious. And fast-food marketers try to promote that."
BOTTOM LINE: Fast food marketing not only tempts us to eat their calorie-laden food, it goes on to say that doing otherwise will make people like you less.
Hidden Health Facts
Let's assume some customers ARE so dedicated to their health they actually do this, look up their nutritional facts online before they get in their car. Even these people may be less informed than you think.
Though (amidst a wave of criticism) fast food restaurants are now providing nutrition information for their entire menu of items, this information is often difficult to find, must be requested, or may not even be available in their stores. Can a restaurant honestly expect their customers to jump online to check nutrition facts before they head out? What about customers without internet access? Let's assume some customers ARE so dedicated to their health they actually do this, look up their nutritional facts online before they get in their car. Even these people may be less informed than you think.
Inconsistency in preparation can create huge differences between the meal you get and the nutrition facts they claim for it. Research has shown actual fat and salt values can be significantly higher.
Take an investigation, reported in Which? magazine UK, for example. "McDonald's website claimed that a Big Mac and medium fries had 786 calories but analysis showed it had 900. Burger King's Whopper and regular fries had 19 grams of saturated fat, rather than the 13 grams claimed. Levels of saturated fat in KFC's Zinger crunchy salad were almost triple the company estimate."
BOTTOM LINE: Fast food companies make nutrition facts too difficult to find and their preparation is often inconsistent with their claims.
The Nutrition Spin
"But you don't have to order the triple patty burger with large fries!" say fast food restaurants. Oh, yes. These days you'll see options like a side of apples instead of fries, salads, and even low cal meals at most chains. In fact, Taco Bell is now advertising a weight-loss diet which centers on foods from their "fresco" menu. McDonald's website now boasts a team of nutritionists on their home page.
To quote their website "A quick glance at our menu can show you options that can help even our youngest customer make good, fun choices!" (Notice they don't say "healthy" or "nutritious.") They then make suggestions according to the food groups.
- What they say: “The Premium Honey Wheat Roll for Chicken Sandwiches provides 8 grams of whole grains, which is a half serving of the daily recommendation of 3 ounces of whole grains…”
- What they don’t say: To get that wholesome whole grain you need to order a chicken sandwich. Their lowest calorie option? A hefty 360 calories, 16 grams of fat (25% of your daily fat needs), and 830 grams of sodium (34% of your daily needs). Their highest? An unbelievable 630 calories, 28 grams of fat (43% dv), and 1,360 grams of sodium 9(57% dv). Not exactly the healthiest whole grain source, but even less so when you realize you’d need to eat 10 a day before you’d have your recommended daily amount of whole wheat!
On the other hand, a serving of MultiGrain Cherrios, provides 33% of your daily whole grain needs in only 110 calories, 1 gram of fat (2% dv), and 207 grams of sodium (9% dv). Nutritious? Hardly.
- What they say: “McDonald’s Premium Salads provide about 3 cups of vegetables - 100% of the recommended daily amount of vegetables,”
- What they don’t say: While 3 servings of vegetables IS good, if you eat it with dressing and all toppings, those veggies can cost you up to 530 calories, 26 grams of fat (39% dv), and 1,260 grams of sodium (52% dv). A full days serving of vegetables may seem good, but compared to 3 servings of broccoli (93 calories, 0 grams fat, 90 mg sodium (3% dv)) it’s an unbalanced trade.
- What they say: “Apple Dippers and 100% Minute Maid® Apple Juice (6.75 oz) each provide at least ½ cup of fruit and meet ¼ of an individual’s daily needs for fruit.”
- What they don’t say: This isn’t so bad, but try convincing little Susie that apple slices are just as good as fries when she orders her happy meal - a hard sell to say the least.
- What they say: “Protein - Chicken McNuggets made with white meat are a tender, juicy choice.”
- What they don’t say: A tender, juicy choice? Maybe. But deep-fried and packing nearly 50 calories, 5 grams of fat (7% dv), and 150 grams of sodium (7% dv) PER NUGGET, they could hardly be considered the most nutritious source of protein.
A food may have some nutritional value, but if it comes with a heap of salt and fat, it’s still not exactly what a dietician would call “healthy” and of course, customers actually have to buy the “healthier” menu options instead of the tempting burgers and fries.
Another thing to be aware of – researchers have discovered an effect called “vicarious goal fulfillment” which makes people feel good having even considered picking the healthier menu item. Now, we’ll leave it up to you to decide whether fast foods restaurants had this in mind when they added these new “healthful” additions in the first place.
BOTTOM LINE: Fast Food companies make foods appear healthier than they actually are with deceptive health claims.
Growing Portion Size
Between years 1000 and 2000, the main dish depicted in paintings of Jesus’ last supper has grown by 69%!
Wansink recently revealed the startling results of his newest study. Between years 1000 and 2000, the main dish depicted in paintings of Jesus’ last supper has grown by 69%! They do say art will imitate life, and this is a prime example, because just as portions in these paintings have grown, so have the portions of our meals.
To illustrate this phenomenon, let’s compare fast food favorites from today against the same favorite in the 1950’s.
Fast Food Portions Now…and Then
Up to 7.1 Ounces
From 12 Ounce Child Size to 64 Ounce Extra Large
One Size – 7 Ounce
Up to 8 Ounces
Of course, it’s not so much the size of the portion that’s the problem, but all the extra calories, fat and sodium we’re eating with it.
For example, a large 7.1 ounce serving of fries packs 610 calories – that’s 400 more than the small sized fry of the 1950’s! With the enormous portion sizes fast food chains offer up these days, it’s remarkably easy for a person to eat more than half of their recommended daily calories - with just a basic burger, fry and drink meal from a fast food restaurant.
They all perceptually suggest to us that it is more appropriate, typical, reasonable and normal to serve and to eat more food than smaller plates or smaller packages would instead suggest.
Even more disturbing? In another Wansink study, it was found that people don’t realize they’ve eaten more when they are served larger plates or portions. Says Wansink, "Large-sized packages, large-sized restaurant portions and large-sized dinnerware all have one thing in common…They all perceptually suggest to us that it is more appropriate, typical, reasonable and normal to serve and to eat more food than smaller plates or smaller packages would instead suggest."
Says dietician Heidi Bates."With food, if we are consistently exposed to large portion sizes and we don't have any other frame of reference, we blithely go along and you can't really change behaviour that you're not aware of…"
Offering larger portions of food for the money is actually the cheap way for fast food chains to impress customers. The cost of food at fast foods restaurants is a much smaller expense than labor or location. What’s 20 cents more in food costs if you can charge the customer an extra 75 cents more anyway? In the highly competitive fast food market, keeping customers happy with large portions, regardless of the health effects, is good business sense.
BOTTOM LINE: Fast food companies SEEM to offer a great deal when they pack more and more food in their meals, but at the same time they’re packing us full of extra calories, fat and salt.