Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser examines all the ways fast food impacts America, the world, and the people who eat it. Various chapters explore the origin of fast food, the impact of the fast food business model on the economy, the environment, animal welfare, and the health of people who consume it. However, the book found that the fast food industry impacts people even if they do not patronize fast food establishments. Chapter Five is called “Why The Fries Taste Good” and delves into the chemical world of food flavor, how it is produced by chemical engineers and chemical plants, and how those chemicals are injected into the food. The chemicals help provide flavor, smell, and texture to the food served in fast food restaurants. Chapter Five helps prove how unhealthy fast food is for the people who eat it, and the impact it has on the environment, food chain, and food supply.
Chapter Five begins with an examination of the Simplot plant in Idaho where potatoes are processed into French fries for fast food restaurants. The chapter is a perfect sample of the overall mission and method of Fast Food Nation as the author shows how something which seems plain and natural, the French fry, has been transformed into a processed, unnatural food commodity by the fast food industry. The writer describes the plant as follows “Inside the building, a maze of red conveyer belts crisscrosses in and out of machines that wash, sort, peel, slice, blanch, blow-dry, fry, and flash-freeze potatoes. Workers in white coats and hard hats keep everything running smoothly (Schlosser 44). The modern production process has made French fries the most profitable item on fast food menus (Schlosser 44).
At first the story of the founding of the Simplot plants seems like the American dream in action, as a small-time farmer turned his potato farm into one of the largest suppliers of food commodities to the fast food industry, making millions in the process. The writer notes, “the fast food companies purchase frozen fries for about 30 cents a pound, reheat them in oil, then sell them for about $6 a pound” (Schlosser 45). However, the company’s success has had a negative impact on other areas of America life and the economy. For example, Simplot uses large amounts of public lands, not paying fair market price for this, effectively giving the company a huge public subsidy. Simplot “controls a block of North American land that’s bigger than the state of Delaware (Schlosser 45). However, the use of public land and a huge profit margin has not turned into high wages for workers in either the food plants or the fast food restaurants, or into big returns for potato farmers. A 2015 government study of the social and economic impact of fast food shows that “the farming sector receives an average of 17 percent of the consumer food dollar as gross farm receipts, down from about 40 percent of consumer food spending in 1950” and attributes this directly to the changes in the American food industry as the result of people eating more meals out of the home in fast food or chain restaurants (Nesheim 10). In the new system, food processors and fast food companies are the kings of the food production system, controlling production and reaping the lion’s share of the profits.
We have also seen that the impact of fast food goes far beyond the food processing industry. Because factory farming and the industrialization of the food processing and meat packing industries fast food restaurants can make massive profits on food items, especially French fries. This leads to intense competition between fast food restaurants which in turn leads to advertising wars. Schlosser talks about Burger King’s 70 million dollar advertising campaign to win fry customers from McDonald's’, and the other fast food companies do the same (Schlosser 47). Large parts of fast food advertising are aimed at children.
This advertising has a negative effect on children, as it turns them into heavy fast food consumers leading to malnutrition and obesity from the low quality of the food. A New York Times study found that 90 percent of fast food advertising for children runs on networks like Disney, Nickelodeon, and other children’s’ networks. According to the New York Times, children who watched those channels were far more likely than children who don’t watch those channels to influence their families to eat at fast food restaurants (Dell’Antonia 3-4). Indeed, this happens even though there are government guidelines against this directed advertising. However, the profits are so high fast food companies skirt these guidelines.
What is even worse is that even if the fast food companies agreed to only advertise so-called healthy options like apple slices, the New York Times discovered that the majority of children exposed to these ads could not remember any healthy options but could remember the normal items on the fast food menu (Dell’Antonia 6-7). This is very dangerous to the children as many government studies have found that eating fast food contributes to obesity, especially childhood obesity. Researchers Jeffery, Baxter, McGuire and Linde, in a study for the National Institute of Health recorded the impact of fast food on children’s health and weight. The study produced results which proved “Eating at ‘fast food’ restaurants was positively associated with having children, a high-fat diet and Body Mass Index (BMI). It was negatively associated with vegetable consumption and physical activity” (Jefferey, Baxter, McGuire, Linde 3).
Consuming fast food and the food commodities produced in the food processing industry doesn’t only cause childhood obesity, but also a range of health problems for children. The research finds that “nutritional analysis of products sold in "fast food" restaurants indicates that they are typically high in energy density, which provides a plausible mechanism through which they might promote excess energy intake” (Jefferey, Baxter, McGuire, Linde 5). This is caused, as Schlosser found, by the industrial practices of the food processing and meat packing industry which produces food in a fast, cheap, and unnatural method.
For example, Schlosser notes “this industrial model of agriculture — one that focuses narrowly on the level of inputs and outputs, that encourages specialization in just one crop, that relies heavily on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, advanced harvesting and irrigation equipment” (Schlosser 46). This unnatural and unhealthy form of industrial food production shows that every step of the food production process has been overtaken by chemicals which are applied to food products from the farm and again during the industrial processing. Indeed, the food processing process removes the flavor and texture of the food products causing the need for chemical additives to add flavor and feeling to the food.
Schlosser points out that fast food commodities always have an ingredient called “natural flavoring” (Schlosser 47). Flavor, coloring, smell, and texture are no longer a result of a natural food item but the result of chemicals, engineered in plants, not farms. Schlosser visits several food additive chemical companies, pointing out that they make food additives as well as other things like perfumes and scented oils. He was not allowed to see the food additive production process, but the fact that non-edible chemicals are created in the same plant raises the question of how edible these additives are.
Overall, chapter five of Fast Food Nation shows that fast food is not a natural or healthy food choice and that as a result of industrial production may not even originate in a farm. This industrial process creates highly profitable food which is unhealthy to eat. Since the profits are so high, the companies have an incentive to feed people, including children, food without nutritional value.
Dell'Antonia, K. J. “More Research Suggests Fast-Food Advertising Works on Children.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 Oct. 2015, parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/30/more-research-suggests-fast-food-advertising-works-on-children/. Accessed 24 May 2017.
Jeffery, R., Baxter, J., McGuire, M., and Linde, J. “Are fast food restaurants an environmental risk factor for obesity?” The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, BioMed Central, 2006, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1397859/. Accessed 24 May 2017.
Nesheim, Malden C. “Social and Economic Effects of the U.S. Food System.” A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 17 June 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK305168. Accessed 24 May 2017.
Schlosser, Eric. Fast food nation: the dark side of the all-American meal. Boston, Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.