Fast food is a phenomenon that has become part of the American way of life during the past few decades. However the convenience of fast foods has resulted in major health issues in the country, as well as in the rest of the world. The prevalence of fast food in American society is evident from the fact that “Americans now spend more money on fast food than they do on higher education, personal computers, software or new cars. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos and recorded music ? combined.” (Schlosser Eric. 1998)
It is now become common news that obesity has become a major health concern in both developed “Westernized” and less developed countries around the world. One of the major factors that have been blamed for this increase in obesity and obesity related diseases is fast food — often termed ‘junk food.” In the U.S., for example, ” … 61 per cent of the population is either overweight or obese while the incidence of obesity has increased at a rate of 10-50% in the majority of European countries over the last decade. ” ( Shortt J. 2004) Less well-known is the fact that this epidemic has reached the shores of developing countries like China, Brazil, Thailand and South Africa. As the populations of these countries become more urbanized, more calories are consumed because of the easy availability of high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods coupled with a decline in physical activity.
In 1995, there were an estimated 200 million obese adults worldwide and another 18 million under-five children classified as overweight. As of 2000, the number of obese adults has increased to over 300 million. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the obesity epidemic is not restricted to industrialized societies; in developing countries, it is estimated that over 115 million people suffer from obesity-related problems.
(Controlling the global obesity epidemic.)
Furthermore, another worrying statistic is that this epidemic has begun to have a serious effect on children in the United States, with an estimated 15% of children in the America aged one to 19 years overweight or obese. ( ibid)
There are a number of factors responsible for this increase. While inactivity and lifestyle habits are part of the problem, a central issue is the quality of the fast foods. Modern fast-food diets consist of products such as hamburgers, French fries and cola drinks, while the most commonly consumed grain is white bread; the favorite meat is beef, and the most frequently eaten vegetable is the potato, usually as French fries. Most fast food contains too many preservatives and flavor enhancing salts which cause high blood pressure and asthma, or lead to kidney failure and other serious illness.
Obesity is not the only health problems associated with fast foods. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) has criticized the fast food trend which offers quantity instead of quality in terms of nutritional value. This refers to the marketing trend in the fast food industry to offer “bargain ‘or “supersized” food deals which, according to the AICR Director of Nutrition Education Melanie Polk, is having a detrimental effect on national health. Polk and other are opposed to this trend in the fast food industry as it promotes quantity over good nutrition and could be a contributing factor in obesity and heart disease. (“Food Industry Is Making AMERICA FAT.” 1) This warning comes as other institutions such as The National Restaurant Association predicts that, “For the first time ever, consumers will spend more at fast food places than they will at full-service restaurants – a whopping $86 billion, according to industry estimates. No wonder McDonald’s builds a thousand new restaurants a year.” (Pardue L. 50)
There has been a strong reaction from many sectors in society to the evidence that fast foods can be a contributing factor to declining health standards. Consumer activist Ralph Nader has stated that, ” … McDonald’s double cheeseburgers are a weapon of mass destruction.” (Berlau J. 12) An interesting development is that recently fast foods have been seen in the same negative light as cigarette smoking. Another factor that has been mentioned by critics is that the advertising of fast foods is exacerbating the problem.
The billions of dollars spent each year to promote food products only intensifies the problem. According to the USDA, more advertising dollars are spent annually by the food industry than by any other source. Conservative estimates place the figures at $11,000,000,000 for advertising and another $22,000,000,000 on trade shows, incentives, and other consumer promotions.
(“Food Industry Is Making AMERICA FAT.” 1)
The central facet in all of these attacks on the fast food industry is mainly directed at the quality of food that is being offered at fast food outlets. Those opposed to fast foods contend that they contain an excessive amount of fat. A study by Tufts University Diet & Nutrition Letter revealed that,
Boston Chicken’s $5.99 half-chicken plate actually contains more fat and calories than a $4.47 belly-bruiser of a Big Mac, large fries and a chocolate shake. And that’s just choosing between two terrible alternatives: The McDonald’s meal has 45 grams of fat, 40 grams of sugar, 1,280 milligrams of sodium and 1,140 calories.”
(Pardue L. 50)
The primary reason also given by nutritionists for avoiding fast food is the amount of saturated fats in animal products. They suggest that dietary calories should not be more than 30% fats. However, they state that,” 55% of the calories in a Big Mac come from fat, together with 83 milligrams of cholesterol. Compare this to beans, which are only four percent fat; potatoes, which are less than one percent fat; and rice, which contains one to five percent fat.” (ibid)
Even a greater cause for concern is the quality of the meat and other ingredients used in the production and fast foods. One of the aspects that most concerns health specialists is the link betweens fast foods and serious illness such as cancer and diabetes. This is particularly the case with regard to processed meat used mostly in fast food products and which, according to the specialists, can be the cause of various forms of cancer; including, colon, prostrate and pancreatic cancer. There is a growing body of evidence which suggests a positive link between processed foods used in fast foods and cancer. “The evidence continues to mount, as demonstrated by a recent study showing a 67% increase in pancreatic cancer for people consuming moderate amounts of processed meat on a frequent basis.” (Adams. M. 2005)
While doctors and nutritionists focus on the negative health effects of the saturated fat content of processed meats, there are other factors that are possibly even more dangerous. Some experts point out that processed meats contain toxic chemicals, as well as heavy metals and even environmental pollutants, which are found within the fat molecules. ( ibid) They explain the processing of these substances into fast foods as follows.
… fat tissues — whether in a cow or a human — tend to concentrate whatever pollutants are found in the mainstay diet of the animal. A cow eats literally tons of grass in its lifetime, and in doing so, it collects and concentrates low-level pollutants found in its diet. For non-organic beef, it’s quite common to find trace amounts of heavy metals (mercury, cadmium), pesticides, and even PCBs. That’s because, for non-organic beef, feed practices are rather horrifying. You’d be shocked to learn what’s perfectly legal to feed to cows intended for human consumption.
These experts point to a basic difference between organic meat and the processed meat that is used extensively in the production of fast food products — and which could have life threatening consequences. Doctors state that the substance found in processed meat contain toxins which “when consumed, are clearly and unquestionably linked to cancers as well as nervous system disorders that can accelerate Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.” ( ibid)
Another issue often mentioned by nutritionists is that processed meat also contains sodium nitrate – which is also a cancer promoting agent. This substance is used as an additive in processed meats to preserve packaged meat products. The United Sates Department of Agriculture (USDA) actually tried to ban this additive in the 1970’s but was unsuccessful due to the food producers insisting that they has no alternative to preserve their products. This extremely dangerous substance can be found in almost all processed meat products and is therefore one of the chief ingredients in fast foods. Another alarming fact is that the sodium nitrate is used in the processed food industry to color meat a healthy looking red color in order to enhance the illusion of freshness. ( ibid)
As well as the above negative factors associated with fast food is the assertion from a number of researchers that fast foods are addictive — hence exacerbating the risk factor the diseases mentioned above. (Fast food industry in firing line) Another fact is the increase in advertising on fast food…