The Soul of the New Fast Food

Posted January 3, 2005

Categories: Articles, Food

I’ve just ordered the Mixed Message salad at McDonald’s. That’s the Caesar salad of mostly iceberg lettuce, a couple grape tomatoes, a sprinkle of shredded parmesan, croutons, and a generous slab of fried chicken strips. The salad part is not bad for me, particularly since I opt for the low fat vinaigrette, courtesy of Paul Newman. The fried chicken strips, however, remind me that I’m in a fast food restaurant.

It’s lunchtime, and I’m the only one in the place who seems to have ordered a salad. Should I feel good about my choice to forego a Big Mac and fries? Or should I feel guilty that I succumbed to the crispy chicken when I could have ordered the grilled version?

The crispy chicken Caesar is an apt metaphor for what’s been going on in the world of fast food. Quick-service restaurants — that’s the official name for McDonald’s, Burger King, and the like — have long flirted with healthier options like salads and lower fat sandwiches. But in the last couple years, they’ve kicked their efforts up a notch. They’ve spent millions of dollars on splashy new product campaigns and have partnered with exercise gurus to get you off your butt and exercising.

Still, it’s not like they’ve turned themselves into fat-free emporiums. Hamburgers, fried chicken, and greasy fries remain front and center in promotions and sales. And even the healthier options, with their gratuitous additions of fat or sugar, seem to have taken on the protective coloring of their environment.

Put Ronald McDonald on the couch and he’d confess to a serious identity crisis. “What am I, doc?” he’d ask his therapist. “Apple slices and aerobics or French fries and couch potatoes? Can you tell me what healthy fast food is, Doc? I’m worried that I’ve become just another oxymoron of popular culture, like educational television and eco-cruises.”

The struggle within the fast food world may well be the latest chapter in the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” that sociologist Daniel Bell identified thirty years ago. Our Protestant ancestors whisper in one ear that we should scrimp and save and embrace austerity. Our modern corporate managers whisper in the other ear that if we don’t shop, our economy will drop. Ronald McDonald oscillates between the two extremes, not Ronald light and dark, but Ronald lite and heavy. How will he resolve his very American McDilemma?

The Year of Eating Less Dangerously

Last year, America seemed to wake up from its fat-induced stupor. 2004 was the year of obesity lawsuits and reports that Big Food was poised to go the way of Big Tobacco. The movie Super Size Me engrossed and grossed out millions. The Center for Disease Control made headlines with its charge that America’s fat problem was costing us over $100 billion a year. The Big Loser debuted on television and scored high enough in the ratings to prove that viewers prefer watching their fellow citizens lose weight to watching paint dry (hitherto considered a toss-up). Conservatives claimed that, like global warming and teenage pregnancy, America’s expanding waistline was all a matter of personal responsibility. Everyone else pointed fingers at the logical suspects: the purveyors of burgers, fries and sodas.

Without acknowledging responsibility — for that would cost big bucks in our litigious culture — the chain restaurants did make some changes. McDonald’s convinced celebrity dietician Bob Greene to walk and bike across the United States to promote its new adult happy meals. Burger King partnered with the President’s Challenge Physical Activity Fitness Awards Program to encourage kids to exercise more. Ruby Tuesday put nutritional information all over its menu. With low fat, low sugar, and low carb diets each attracting their own sectarian followings, dieters and diabetics seemed to be the new, hot demographic.

But that was last year, and a year is a long time in the minds of marketers and media mavens, both of whom make a living by sifting through the tea leaves of popular culture to identify often spurious trends. Now, according to several high-profile reports, the chains have reverted to form. The turning point was Hardee’s Monster Thickburger, which came on line at the end of 2004. “People were blown away by the audaciousness of it,” says Jeff Mochal, public relations manager of Hardee’s. “That’s how we positioned it — a monument to decadence. It was a time when a lot of people were going low carb, low fat or low something. But here we came out with a big, bold, audacious burger.”

Hardee’s was catering to a young male audience, the tried-and-true constituency for fast food. With its tie-ins with Sports Illustrated, Hardee’s was suggesting that eating its megaburger was some kind of X-treme sport. In Jarhead, Anthony Swofford’s memoir of the first Gulf War, the new recruits interpret even the most anti-war war movies as celebrations of combat. Similarly, a generation of young hungry guys sees Super Size Me as a how-to manual, its scare tactics on the level of Reefer Madness. For them, ordering Monster Thickburgers becomes the culinary equivalent of cliff jumping.

“We can put salad on the menu, but the problem is no one will buy it,” Jeff Mochal says. “It’s really a business decision. We’ve tested salads, and it’s not something that people will buy off our menu. Yes, we offer something for people on a different diet. But burgers are what we hang our hat on.”

It’s not just Hardee’s. Ruby Tuesday highlights their burgers too, including the Ultimate Colossal Burger, which outdoes Hardee’s heftiest by a third of a pound. Burger King, meanwhile, has just introduced its new Enormous Omelet Sandwich — “so big, breakfast will never be the same” — that clocks in at 730 calories and 43 grams of fat (out of a daily recommended ceiling of 66 grams). Despite plenty of criticism, 7-11 has not backed away from its X-Treme Gulp of 52 ounces of sugary pop.

So much for portion control. In our bulimic culture, binge follows purge with guilty regularity. The return to burgers is not so much a backlash as a tension that has long resided in American food ways. Fast food restaurants enjoyed explosive growth in the 1970s, but so did food co-ops. Diet books are perennial bestsellers, yet portions keep getting bigger. We want to halve our cake and eat it too.

Making It Real

Dieticians face a challenge. They can tell Americans what they should eat — that whole pyramid thing of more vegetables, more fruit, and more whole grains — and risk irrelevancy given what the majority of Americans eat every day. Or they can follow the maxim of social workers and start where the clients are. So, voila, frozen meals are not such a bad thing (nutrition consultant Carol Meerschaert recommends owning two microwaves). Eating breakfast at fast food restaurants is also not such a bad thing, at least compared to not eating breakfast at all, and hey, the French cruller at Dunkin Donuts has only 150 calories. Bob Greene has devoted a whole book to eating right in all the wrong places, from Arby’s to Wendy’s.

Heart-healthy physician Dean Ornish, like Greene, has taken this approach one step further by burrowing into the belly of the McBeast. Ornish consults for McDonald’s, lending his expert cache to the mega-corporation’s makeover. Demonstrating his ecumenical leanings, Ornish also consults for ConAgra and Pepsico, though he’s not so proud of any of these affiliations as to list them in his web bio. ”It’s very easy to be a purist and demonize things, but as I get older I realize that life is shades of gray,” Ornish told The New York Times earlier this year. ”Are these companies moving as quickly as I might like? Of course not. But they’re moving much faster than I ever thought possible.”

Surely Ornish didn’t think that McDonald’s would never change. A spokesperson for the company quoted an old Ray Kroc-ism for me: “I don’t know what we’ll be selling in the year 2000 but we’ll be selling more of it than anyone else.” Of course, McDonald’s is not simply interesting in cornering the market on Caesar salads. The motivation of the chain restaurants to change seems to be threefold. They’re always introducing new products, some higher fat, some lower fat, in an effort to pique the palate, bring in new customers, and perhaps stumble upon the killer dish. They also want to have something for everyone in a group, just in case the beef-hater or the Atkins freak might steer the party to some other establishment.

And finally, as Michael Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, points out, the restaurants want to protect themselves from litigation. “It’s harder to sue a restaurant if it offered healthier options,” he says. “A person couldn’t complain that ‘it was the only restaurant within proximity and they didn’t have anything that couldn’t kill me.'”

Keeping one’s critics close at hand has generated some real changes. It’s both amazing and depressing that McDonald’s, as a result of recommendations from its Global Advisory Council on Balanced Lifestyles, offers raw apples as a dessert. The apples I tried with my Caesar salad were actually quite tasty. But why gild the lily with the caramel dipping sauce? And I ended up paying more than $1 for my apple slices, quite a mark-up.

Other attempts to marry a fast food sensibility with healthy living verge on the ridiculous. “All of our menu items can be part of a balanced, active lifestyle,” the McDonald’s spokesperson told me. To my mind, the Big Mac could only be part of the balanced, active lifestyle of a tree sloth. It sounds all too much like Coke’s former CEO Doug Ivester touting the advantages of his product to Brazilians: “First of all, we have a very healthy product. Of course, our beverage contains sugar, but sugar is a good source of energy, of vitality.” Yes, and so is cocaine, but no one claims that that coke should be part of a healthy diet any longer.

Burger King’s partnership with the government’s fitness program, meanwhile, is the kind of coupling that U.S. politicians should really be trying to prohibit. “It sounds like a joke,” Michael Jacobson says. “The President’s Council [on Physical Fitness and Sports] is itself a joke. It has no funding. It holds a press conference once or twice a year. It’s just window dressing, just a pretense that the U.S. government is doing something on nutrition.”

So, how do reputable nutritionists reconcile the tension between the ideal and the practical? Jacobson and CSPI are pushing for nutritional labeling on the menus of chain restaurants so that we know exactly what we’re eating. Jacobson also urges changes at the margins of the fast food menu. “You can make invisible changes — gradually cutting sodium in the food, using lower fat ground beef or mayonnaise, adding some whole grain to the bread or tortillas. These are marginal steps that people wouldn’t even notice, yet these steps would significantly improve the quality of foods.”

Marion Nestle is the author of Food Politics and a professor of nutrition at New York University. She wants chain restaurants to offer real choices, which means smaller portions at smaller prices. “Studies show that if foods taste good and are priced appropriately, people will eat them,” she says. “That goes for veggies in vending machines.”

Muddying the Waters?

In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued that proposals to improve television programming were spectacularly beside the point. “Television,” he argued, “serves us most usefully when presenting junk-entertainment; it serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse — news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion — and turns them into entertainment packages. We would all be better off if television got worse, not better.”

If this argument applied to fast food, we should be campaigning for McDonald’s to stick to what it does best and stay far away from fruits and vegetables. Eating a salad on every tenth visit to McDonald’s salves our conscience and lulls us into thinking that we’re eating healthier. Watching Ronald McDonald jog alongside Bob Greene establishes Pavlovian associations between hamburgers and exercise that will make our kids salivate every time they approach the playground.

To paraphrase Postman, the problem is not what we eat at these fast food restaurants, it’s that we go to them in the first place, that we have ceded control of our food supplies to these giants. McDonald’s has become the largest purchaser of apples in the United States. As with its potato suppliers, McDonald’s demands a uniform product, which leads to a further reduction in biodiversity. The structure of the fast food economy militates against dietary diversity, not to mention eating local, eating organic, or just plain eating well.

Corporate advisors like Dean Ornish relish the opportunity to have a large impact on diets by shifting the priorities of entities the size of McDonald’s. But the size of McDonald’s is part of the problem. Because of its market dominance, it begins to define what a healthy, balanced lifestyle is, which inevitably involves its entire menu. Maybe it was better when chains weren’t experiencing an identity crisis, when we could go to them for our junk food fix and not be gulled into ascribing higher motives to the excursion.

Or perhaps we don’t need to worry after all. The giant hamburger is, was, and always will be the symbol of fast food restaurants. Consider my experience with the McDonald’s media website. Before I could access the graphics and text, I was required to sign up for a log-on name and a password, neither of which I was able to choose for myself. After a brief interval, McDonald’s sent me an email with my brand new secret information.

User ID: fries748

Password: burger18fries

That’s the McDonald’s I can relate to — staying on message.

Alternet, October 20, 2005

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