U.S. Fast Food Industry Pros and Cons: A Reasoned Argument

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While some research studies may suggest that fast foods taste better to many Americans, the fast food industry does not necessarily produce the most nutritional foods and has contributed to serious changes in society. In terms of employment, much of the minimum-wage earners can be found behind the counters of fast food kitchens. Apart from an impact upon employment, the fast food industry promotes obesity among children, low nutrition, supported a torrent of advertisement marketing, and altered the overall lifestyles of the American family. One researcher, James Binkley (2008) agrees that the fast food industry represents “one of the largest changes in American eating habits,” a link between eating away from home with “30% of total food expenditures” (p. 750). The latter statistic gleaned from a government report from the United States Agriculture Department (USDA) points to a changing culture indeed. This paper examines these health issues and trends. The discussion seeks to reasonably argue both the advantages, and disadvantages, connected to the fast food industry in the United States.

May as well start off in order, by looking at the good – then, the bad and the ugly. A quick meal can save time and money. Driving through a fast food line to pick up a juicy burger, may save a working parent the trouble of cooking a full meal at home. A college student studying for final exams may prefer to buy a low-cost fast food meal, in lieu of a home-prepared one. The fast food industry has an advantage of providing quick, tasty burger or other processed foods while also providing many jobs. Although most of fast food industrial jobs are minimum-wage based, in one peer-reviewed journal article Elizabeth Powers (2009) attests, “its straightforward compensation scheme, uncomplicated by tip income,” is useful for employers. Another positive point is that workers, despite the minimum-wage dollars, do not need to be skilled to find a job in the fast food industry. This factor can help bring extra income.

These economic advantages to both employer and employee, may have a win-win outcome in the short term. Coupled with these visible, and fairly uncomplicated advantages are some social advantages on the personal level. Younger adults and teenagers may experience friendly meals with friends, at a price-point they can afford. It should be noted that this 'social' advantage looks at the micro-level and not at the larger, greater encompassing macro-level of implications for society at large.

A central complaint and disadvantage surrounding the fast food industry is its widespread contribution to obesity. Recently childhood obesity has been red-flagged as a growing problem in the United States today. One critic who has brought popular attention to the matter is Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, however other research supports the facts. In an article, Department of Agricultural Economics professor James Binkley states that “the prevalence of obesity among U.S.” adults rose between 15% and 31% and for children increased “4% to 16%” from 1971 to 2002 (p. 750). This trend suggests something terrible is going on. Furthermore, Binkley insists that nutritional studies link obesity to fast food diets, and that one British medical journal on childhood obesity “mentions fast food 16 times” (p. 751). The data in Binkley's report details nutrient intake with food types, in terms of breakfast/lunch/dinner and calories and grams.

The Binkley study performed its analysis separately for adults and children. Results showed that children by far consume higher percentages of fast foods than adults. The obesity factor as a detrimental outcome of fast foods is particularly heinous because more children are succumbing to the health dangers associated with being overweight. Although it is common knowledge, the Harvard School of Public Health confirms that diet patterns can protect one from diabetes, stroke, and heart disease. The report observes that even though caloric intake has decreased, “obesity rates have skyrocketed” and that eating processed red meats indicated more weight gain – from studies (Harvard School of Public Health, 2013a). Aside from meal frequency and portion size according to the same Harvard report specifically tells that fast food is “known for its large portions, low prices, high palatability, and high sugar content.” This might be enough of the bad. Unfortunately, there's more.

Not only does the fast food industry contribute to obesity in children and adults, but the poor nutritional qualities seem to links to major sources of food for lower-income individuals. Freeman (2007) points out that fast food is a “major source” of nutrition among the economically disadvantaged populace, and that “target marketing, infiltration into schools, government subsidies,” and federal food polity play “significant” roles in the situation (p. 2221). Freeman argues that the impact has harmful effects upon particularly on Latinos, African-Americans and the poor in general. But while Freeman notes “urban communities of color” more often suffer “food oppression” which undermines well-being and survivability of these communities it further contributes to a generalized deterioration towards homelessness, poverty, and bankruptcy (p. 2222). The outcome, she claims, helps create a permanent underclass. The middle classes may not be much better off.

Once again, Harvard School of Public Health (2013b) found in a study of 3,000 young adults over a 13-year period, those who ate fast foods were an average of 13 pounds overweight. The study also found, the fast-food eaters to have larger waistlines – in measurable circumferences – with “double” odds for development for metabolic syndrome. Healthier diets were linked to minimally processed foods, whole grains, brown rice, fruits, nuts, and vegetables with limited intakes of fast food, potatoes, and refined food. Eric Schlosser in a presentation to a professional audience at the 92 Street Y in New York City, informs that “what we eat and how our food is produced has change more in the last thirty years, than in the previous thirty thousand” (The Film Archives, 2013). Schlosser warns that what looks like food has actually been radically transformed.

One of Schlosser's great concerns, and this writer would agree, is that marketing and advertisements play a heavy hand in the situation. Schlosser's findings indicate that some $114 billion dollars comprises profits from the fast food industry – higher than what is spent on education, videos, video games, CDs, or books. Schlosser protests that fast food places are most likely to be located near schools. Several experts from this investigation assure that there is a strong influence of media on child health behaviors, in terms of food. Obviously then it is not farfetched to assume the connection between advertisement, toys, Hollywood movie promotions, and fast food – all geared to younger and younger audiences. Schlosser cited McDonald's and Sonic, certainly the giant models topping fast food's kingdom, as realizing from a marketing standpoint that each child brings with him or her at least four or five other people, to the fast food retail counter. The meat-packing industry is another horrendous story.

But the issue of nutritional deficient and disease-propagation of America's fast food industry, are also infecting other nations and cultures globally. The issue is so serious that the Harvard School of Public Health held a forum/panel of experts to discuss the situation. Dr. Walter Willett, Chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard's School of Public Health cries that fast food's high levels of sugar and salt are engineered into our food supply, stimulating (and in a way, re-training) us to eat more. Speaking from the video discussion of the panel event, Willett also relates that the majority of the nutritional/health problem fast food poses is not based on genetics. He wisely guesses that disease rates will go up in the future, in this toxic food environment. Loosely defining 'toxic food environment' Willett describes it as a situation wherein healthy choices are not the most prevalent option offered in one's circle of neighborhood convenience.

The closer one examines the fast food industry, the sooner an intelligent mind will discover that much of its existence is about making money. Delivery of the best quality nutriments towards enhancement of the health of the public is certainly not what drives it. This is probably accurate to say, despite the addition of so-called healthier edibles to the menus of fast food joints. One expert on the televised Harvard panel, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian Associate Professor of Harvard's Department of Epidemiology maintains that the low-fat craze has merely triggered the consumption and production of higher amounts of refined sugars. He also reminds that science proves it's the types of food causing the obesity epidemic in the U.S. The panel experts also marvel that advertisement geared toward children in television is a socio-political factor. They comment that there is big-time marketing going on with games promoting products inside the gaming activity. When this happens, kids are getting subconscious signals about the processed fast foods in combination with 'fun' and 'toys.' Getting a handle on advertising ethics will not be easy.

Aside from the obesity numbers and nutritional deficits associated with fast food consumption and promotion, there is the problem of politics. Everything seems to eventually reduce to a matter of politics and political will. The Harvard panelists' conversation included phrases like: “seductiveness,” “political issue,” and “advertising ethics.” Obviously and overall, the fast food industry in the United States is not good for society at large. Eating in tables at home also seems to promote closer relationships between family members, thereby doing 'good-social-work,' if you will. Creel, Sharkey, McIntosh, Anding, & Huber (2008), in a BioMed Central Public Health research document explore the viability of healthier options within the fast food outlet environment. In their study Creel et al., say that fast food outlets offer a better “opportunity for healthier fast food options than convenience stores” (p. 1). It is uncertain as to whether fast foods were nutritionally more sound than foods at convenience locations, or if convenience store food was actually more devoid of nutriments. The researchers admit their study was limited from the ability to access precise nutritional information.

All and all, it looks like fast food production is here to stay. The minor advantages of convenience, low-cost and quick, employment of unskilled labor, and helping employers save money do not outweigh the disadvantages. With healthy nutrition, child obesity, and the future propagation of disease at stake the fast food industry seems like a dragon just waiting to be slain. The problem is is that there would be a need to replace it with something better, more cost efficient, and certainly healthier. Arriving at a win-win solution may be a difficult climb. Especially when politics and money are involved, fast foods' popular revenue-producing trends may balance heavier on the scales.

References

Binkley, J. K. (2008). Calorie and gram differences between meals at fast food and table service restaurants. Review of Agricultural Economics, 30(4), 750-763. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9353.2008.00444.x

Creel, J. S., Sharkey, J. R., McIntosh, A., Anding, J., & Huber, J. (2008). Availability of healthier optionsin traditional and nontraditional rural fast-food outlets. BMC Public Health,8395-103.

The Film Archives. (2013, August 21). The dark side of fast food: Why does it make you sick/fat/tired/taste so good (2001). [Web Youtube vlog] Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUspRBt7Kp4

Freeman, A. (2007). Fast food: Oppression through poor nutrition. California Law Review,95(6), 2221-2259.

Harvard School of Public Health. (2013a). Food and diet [Data file] Retrieved from http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-causes/diet-and-weight/

Harvard School of Public Health. (2013b). Toxic food environment [Data file] Retrieved from http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-causes/food-environment-and-obesity/

Powers, E. (2009). The impact of minimum-wage increases: Evidence from fast-food establishments in Illinois and Indiana. Journal Of Labor Research, 30(4), 365-394. doi:10.1007/s12122-009-9068-3