The slow death of fast food


How sincere is the McCafé revolution?

Another year, another dire health warning about fast food.

This time the sector is under fire from the influential American Institute of Medicine. The dangerous obesity epidemic engulfing America – and many other countries – cannot be put down to personal choice alone, the report states. Washington is advised to consider a tax on sugary drinks, and to ensure that healthy options – and not merely fast food – are available at shopping malls and sports facilities.

In short, it is the obesogenic environment that must change – and nothing characterises this environment more than fast food outlets and the cheap and abundant calories they offer.

How has fast food survived so long, and what future does it have, when McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC are the public face of a public health crisis? Judging by the figures, the fast food industry is in much ruder health than its customers. Fast food sales remained steady in the US through the worst of the economic crisis, and actually increased in Britain, France and Japan, while whole swathes of the restaurant and retail sectors fell by the wayside.

But while individuals can still afford a Big Mac, the public purse can no longer afford to pay for the fallout. The costs of fighting diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease are becoming untenable: obesity in the US – now afflicting 34% of people – is responsible for an additional $190 billion (€241 billion) per year in healthcare costs, according to Reuters. In this climate, all avenues for tackling overeating will be explored, and fast food will be subject to more scrutiny than ever.

However, recent evolutions in the sector demonstrate just how resilient and adaptable it has proved itself to be. For many years now, a combination of public opinion and regulatory pressure have forced the sector into an ongoing process of rebranding and reinvention. Offering salads and smoothies alongside burgers and coke is no longer an eccentric marketing ploy – it is effectively a prerequisite for chains that wish to stay in business. Burger King fell behind its competitors during the recession, but is bouncing back this year largely on the basis of revamping its menus to include new healthy options. There is, presumably, no healthy way to produce fried chicken – but KFC has nonetheless signposted its own commitment to de-stodgifying its output by bringing in the Kentucky Grilled Chicken range. McDonald’s, through its McCafé experiment, has gone furthest and fastest in its bid to associate itself with Starbucks-style modern consumerism: quick but healthy, snack and beverage-driven, young professional.

From nutritional greenwashing to real change

Often these healthy branding offensives are the nutritional equivalent of ‘green-washing’. McDonald’s new UK kids’ beverage, Fruitizz, contains twelve spoonfuls of sugar – and yet promotional campaigns highlight how it delivers one of the requisite ‘five a day’. Subway, which now holds more franchises worldwide than McDonald’s, goes to lengths to convince customers that it is a fresh sandwich company rather than a fast food outlet. Yet stacks of processed meat, melted cheese, abundant sauce, and the possibility for the sandwich to be 12 inches (30 centimetres!) long, make its offerings nutritionally akin to fast food.

Even when the healthy options are genuinely healthy, expanding and adapting the menu in the way McDonald’s and Burger King have done is a relatively painless rebranding process: the core items remain as fatty, salty, sugary – and cheap – as ever, and continue to drive business.

Only rarely have the ingredients and preparation processes of these core items come under genuine scrutiny – and it is only then that the real change starts to happen.

Following a Jamie Oliver-led campaign, McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell recently declared that they would no longer use ‘pink slime’ – beef containing ammonium hydroxide-treated ground connective tissue – to fill out their burgers. Following a similar outcry in the early 2000s, the leading fast food chains moved to scale back or eradicate trans fats in their cooking oils. Meanwhile the Happy Meal, and similar offerings aimed squarely at children, have been revamped to reduce calories, add fruit and vegetable snacks, and generally pre-empt regulation to this effect – none of which would have occurred had the threat of regulation not been real.

Evolution or revolution?

None of this is enough to stem the negative health outcomes of what remains a food offering based around fried, processed items. But the gradual eradication of the most harmful ingredients and practices does go to show that slowly, surely, with the right mixture of political carrot and stick, and sustained consumer scrutiny, fast food can move towards detoxifying its brand – and the arteries of its customers.

Since the inception of McDonald’s in 1940, fast food restaurants have undoubtedly played a role in democratising the experience of dining out. But healthier options are now available in the same price bracket. A shish kebab – freshly grilled chicken or lamb in pitta bread with ample fresh veg – will generally have a better nutritional profile than the pre-made, pre-frozen burgers that pass through the industrial-scale supply chains of major fast food retailers.

Will consumers eventually abandon the Big Mac in favour of healthier convenience food? Or will McDonald’s and co ditch the Big Mac altogether in favour of wraps, salads, smoothies and coffee? What, then, will be their unique selling point?

Fast food will not reform itself out of existence, whatever the pressures brought to bear on it. But more likely is that it continues along its current path towards a slow death – in the form of gradually eradicating the corner-cutting, obesity-fuelling practices that define fast food as we know it.

The opinions in this blog are those of the author alone.

Image courtesy of freephotosbank.com