Fast food, fast arguments

I left this response, pace Karl Marx, to William Reville’s article on fast food in today’s Irish Times, which is titled ‘The truth about fast food and getting fat’

junk‘Every day there is more garbage in the food and more food in the garbage’

It is preposterous that an eminent scientist should draw such ludicrous conclusions about the exercise of choice and self-control. As he himself notes in his article, the environment in which fast food is consumed is designed precisely so that you cannot exercise choice and self-control, and so that your capacity to evaluate information is impaired, in order that you spend as much as possible on the items that prove most profitable to the vendor.

It is one thing to wander in off the street alone, with time on your hands to squint at the range of relatively healthy menu items that are obscured from view, and to pause calmly whilst the worker behind the counter looks on expectantly. It is quite another to coolly weigh up the menu when you have two or three anxious children in tow who have their own ideas about what they want, and a queue of impatient customers shuffling behind.

But it goes beyond the restaurant: he takes no account of the particular manipulations used by fast food companies that are deliberately designed to erode the possibility of choice and self-control. Consider the ‘Happy Meal’, a product that combines fast food with a toy. The whole point of food advertising and marketing is to stimulate consumer appetites in a particular way. In the case of the ‘Happy Meal’, it is the consumer appetites of children, who are not possessed with the critical capacity that Reville expects of his ideal adult. A child who encounters the ‘Happy Meal’, with its smile on the packaging, will conclude that getting the product makes you happy. She will also conclude, not unreasonably, that if you do not get the product, you will be unhappy. Therefore the product is designed to create unhappiness, and the eating of the product is designed to be associated with happiness.

His claim that it all boils down to “choice and self-control” also takes no account of the addictive qualities of fast food. A study published in Nature Neuroscience in 2010 –on the face of it, a good deal more rigorous than what either Morgan Spurlock or John Cisna got up to- showed that ‘overconsumption of palatable food triggers addiction-like neuroadaptive responses in brain reward circuits and drives the development of compulsive eating’, and suggested that ‘common hedonic mechanisms may therefore underlie obesity and drug addiction’.

Men and women and children may choose to eat fast food, but they do not make these choices as they please, and they do not do so under self-selected circumstances. An evaluation that is unable to take these circumstances into account is not worth tuppence, I’m afraid. Except perhaps to fast food companies and finger-wagging moralists.


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