This is a bit of a rant, so if you’re one of those who takes things personally, or gets all hot and bothered by things people write, well, maybe just pass on this one.
I do a mental exercise every so often. If a commercial comes on while I’m watching TV, I try to put myself at a remove from it. The goal here is to be more an observer than the passive participant that is often how we experience TV. Doing this allows for evaluating the commercial more objectively and I can tease out the subtle message the marketers are trying to send. Sometimes I do it for fun, sometimes to tell my kids so they understand that it is not reality, just marketing to separate people from their money.
One group who has mastered the ability to manipulate us by preying on the phobias, inadequacies and especially desires we all feel is food companies. And fast food companies do it very well. Cheap, tasty food (well, tasty is subjective) that just happens to contain the right mix of salt, sweetness and fat that our primordial brain craves. Add some capering friends and smiles all around or the abundance one person purchased for a dollar next to the rip-off tiny meal the other one has and boy isn’t life grand. They tempt our children at an early age with clowns (which are creepy as hell to me, but whatever), toys and games that hook their fancy and then reel them in with the food that is specifically designed (yes, designed. Make no mistake. This is not actually food, it’s a manufactured thing masquerading as food.) to elevate serotonin levels in the brain so people want more. A recent study found a correlation between the response the brain feels to fatty foods and the same response derived from using cocaine or heroin. Nice, right? And people are feeding this to themselves and their kids on a regular basis … sometimes daily.
When my boys were in elementary school I was talking to the principal one day and he’d told us how frustrating it was manning the carpool lane. Every morning the minivans would drive up, the doors would open and there would be fast food wrappers littering the floor at the feet of the kids. It very much bothered him but he had no way of changing it. In some way, it’s not even the parents’ fault (although, in the end, it is really, but I’m not accusing anyone of anything lest I be lambasted by someone who doesn’t get the point of this essay.) Kids’ brains are no match for the tryptophan in the cheese, the salt, the sweetness and fat combinations that have been tweaked and tuned for over 50 years. It’s by design. And just take a look at the line for the drive through on any given morning (even Sunday) and you’ll kind of know what I mean. “Hey, kids, before school, let’s stop for an eight ball at McTaco King.”
The addiction comes on slowly. A progression from “oh, well, every so often isn’t going to hurt” to, “no time for a proper breakfast so we’ll just do what we usually do and drive through to get a quick bite.” And before you know it you’re trying to score a double cheese something or other on the way home, too.
It’s no surprise this crap, dense with calories, so easily acquired and packed with things that make our brains go “Ooooooo,” is one of the most consumed types of food these days in the U.S. But the odd thing is, it’s all kind of the same stuff. Back in the late 70s, Steve Martin had a bit about fast food where he talks about “a vat of this stuff.” Someone’s dipping into it, squish, “here are your fries,” squish, “here’s your shake,” squish, “here’s your change.” The sad things is, he wasn’t so far off the mark. The typical fast food meal, in most cases, is 60% corn. Not corn-on-the-cob corn but #2 dent corn that is inedible off the cob. It’s inedible until it’s been run through chemical baths and manufacturing processes that, once it comes out the other side is nothing close to what it started out as. This kind of corn is basically raw material from which chemical companies create food. Frankenfood. Something way too far from its origins to actually have any nutritional benefit (which by definition is what food should have in some regard, right?) Ever actually look at what’s in one of those disks of “chicken” you get in a little box? Chemicals, and a lot of them (one of which is benzene … that’s lighter fluid, folks.) Even the “flaky” chicken strips are not actual chicken but a processed item that is made to look like chicken meat.
I sometimes wonder if people look around and see 2 out of every 3 people who are overweight or obese and wonder what’s going on. I wonder if they see children walking around that are 50% larger than they should be and feel scammed for profit. Do they wonder about the clothing companies that, in order to protect their market, rename clothes sizes and adjust waste and length sizes to match the wider shorter person that seems more prevalent today than not? They…are…not…helping.
I read the report (password is mohan) that the insurance companies have $1.8 billion invested in the fast food industry (with a similar report from about 10 years ago showing the same investment in tobacco companies that still exists today…but that’s another essay) and wonder if they’re just hedging their bets; banking on the crap being peddled by Big Food driving people to an early grave or at least into a health care system that’s set up to make them a bunch of money. Are we no longer capable of using our brains due to the constant bombardment and manipulation by the marketers? It just feels like we’re being told how to think and that’s really not what we’re capable of is it? They are in your head, and that sucks because only one person should be there. You!
Look, I know this is a harsh indictment. And I’m sure people will get all wadded up about some things I have written here, thinking me condescending or arrogant or whatever. They’ll claim they lost weight eating only fast food or “hey, I like my Double Royale with Cheese, so STFU and let me eat what I want.” Ok, sure, go ahead, I am not saying you can’t do what you want. But make sure you are doing what you want and not something someone got you hooked on or has convinced you you should be doing by other subtle means. Maybe I’m just being a food snob or something but this crap is bumming me out and what really gets me is I can’t help anyone or change it. When I was deep in the nutrition industry in a former life, I was digging on getting fit, being fit and trying to give people advice (only when they asked because I know how annoying it is when someone decides they know everything and are all too happy to tell you about it … hmmm, is this essay like that?) on how to be that way too. I was having fun, why not spread the joy. Not a single person actually took my advice. If they did get in shape, it was because they changed their minds but I know I didn’t change their minds for them. That’s not possible. You can’t tell anybody anything. They have to come to it on their own.
It’s just frustrating that with all the reports of childhood obesity and now the emergence of breast cancer in girls as young as eleven and the onset of metabolic syndrome (coronary artery disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes) sooner and sooner it just doesn’t seem to be changing. These folks are still making obscene amounts of money and a lot of people are still making the same choices to help them do it.
We’re better than this. I’m certain of it! It kinds steams me when I hear a comment on a show on BBC that seems to indicate we are thought of across the pond as those fat ones (“You can’t be American, you’re too skinny.” Crowd laughs knowingly.) It makes me wonder just what the hell is going on and who’s making money off taking this nation to a bad place.
There is a particular commercial that kind of illustrates the point (actually there are a lot but the message is the same.) You’ve probably seen it. It involved the message that high fructose corn syrup isn’t bad stuff. Two women are at a kids’ party. One offers the other some kind of sweetened and obviously non-fruit juice. The person being offered the treat feigns offense by saying “oh, hey, how can you serve that,” or “don’t you care about me?” and the offering person says, with a knowledgeable, slightly arrogant air, that high fructose corn syrup isn’t bad; After all, “everything in moderation.”
OK, yeah, I get that. You don’t consume too much of a bad thing and your body has a nice ability to process it. The body’s a pretty cool organism that way. A healthy body is even better at doing that. But here’s the thing. Crap like high fructose corn syrup contains highly concentrated calories. It is so highly processed that it interferes with the body’s ability to absorb water (such irony when the athlete in the commercial comes running off the field only to down that frosty bottle of cola or sugar bloated sports drink. “Ahhhh! Ready to score another goal coach.”) Moreover, that high concentration of calories not only jacks with blood sugar levels but also changes how the body uses the calories it takes in. We’re built to use the easy calories first which are sugars (probably due to way back when we either had to catch dinner or get away from becoming dinner and needed immediate energy to do both.) What’s left behind? Fat! What do you get in a society that consumes obscene amounts of foods dense with sugars and fat? Obesity.
Yes, I can understand drinking a can of soda or a fake fruit drink every so often or dipping fries in ranch dressing or catsup (how do you really spell that word?) at the restaurant. Yummy! But that’s not how it usually works. High fructose corn syrup, saturated fats and hydrogenated oils are in everything. Go ahead, take a little extra time in the store and read the labels. Just about every bit of food that’s in some way processed has these things in it. The corn fed beef that’s in the grocery store is 40% fattier than it used to be (and by the way, cows are made to eat plants, not corn, so corn fed beef is not a good thing.) All the stuff in the middle isles of the store, the processed foods, are full of this poison that would probably be fine in moderation, but since it’s in just about everything, moderation goes out the window.
But that doesn’t stop the Corn Marketers Association from creating those commercials about HFCS. And they are doing it to counter the attack that doctors and other health professionals are raining down on their cash cow. This kind of tactic is called manufacturing doubt and if it doesn’t sound familiar, it should. The tobacco companies did it for 30 years.
But I have hope. I know Americans are strong people and most of them have brains and sense and when they get those collective minds around something good, they run with it. Run hard! They really do. With just a little effort, I’m guessing the trend will stop, eventually. As soon as people do that thing where they step back and, from a bit of a remove, really look at what’s passing their lips, things could start to change. We can stop poisoning the children and ourselves and realize that eating good, whole, non-processed food is an excellent way to live…and live long.
I would love for more people to read Fast Food Nation (don’t watch the movie, it’s not even close to the same thing,) see Food, Inc or watch Supersize Me! I hope one scene in Supersize Me! sticks in their minds, too. The scene in which Morgan Spurlock, after about two weeks of a month long experiment in eating a fast food-only diet, is feeling horrible at around 11pm. He heads out and gets something to eat (fast food, of course, it’s the point of the movie). A few minutes later he feels excellent and immensely happy. Smells like a physical addiction to me.
I hope more people will read The Omnivore’s Dilemna (a little more cerebral but a really excellent read) engaging their brains to realize that we are in a sense being poisoned by Big Food, slowly, and with our own tacit consent. And then right on the heels of that understand that if we didn’t ask for it, they wouldn’t provide it. Because it’s a basic law of economics; as long as someone asks for it, there is money to be made.
We are a visual species and food companies work very hard to make food look good and, in that, rob that food of nearly every shred of nutrients that actually means anything (buy the ugly tomatoes, they taste way better.) Does that make anyone feel duped?
Companies try to convince us that there is an easier, quicker way to cook and eat. If you’re not shortening the time it takes you to make a meal instead of deliberating consciously about what passes your lips, there must be something wrong with you. And, oh, you can be doing so much more and packing so many other activities into your day if you just made mealtime faster. How could you not be doing the best for your kids by actually cooking them something that didn’t come out of a box. But they are not really trying to make our lives better, more convenient or provide inexpensive food that is good for you. They are trying to make money … and a lot of it. Do you get the idea I’m not big on money? I realize I sound a bit shrill about this. I don’t mean to preach but sometimes I just get a little p##ssed. This country produces enough food for each woman, man and child to eat 3,500 calories a day! And some people are actually doing that.
We have brains and we should use them. Applied to this dilemma the world could be a better place … I’d be happy to see the U.S. actually be that better place … first. And I am hoping it can start with something simple. The realization that cooking real food is sometimes a great way to spend time thinking/praying/meditating, cooling out after a particularly hard day or chatting with friends or family. Take my word for it, it’s pretty gratifying creating something that looks and tastes good and what’s in it is not a mystery. It might take a little time, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing…slowing down can be good for you, too. And the best part of all is that a little good food can go a long way to curing what ails you.
I have hope that someday the tide will turn and kids will get disgusted with the businesses that are making money at their expense and get wise to the manipulation being heaped upon them. And I have hope that more brains will engage and take to heart the words of Michael Polan from The Omnivore’s Dilemna:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
End of rant…
Photo by Lily Banse