Junk food: why do we love it so?

Peter Jackson
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The Canadian Medical Association brought its travelling road show to St. John’s Monday night, conducting a two-hour panel discussion on “social determinants” of health care.

It was the final stop for the cross-Canada initiative spearheaded by CMA president Anna Reid. The association hopes to get a better idea of social factors in Canada that make us sick.

As one member of the panel, I was particularly interested in the topic of food, both attitudes about and availability thereof.

And in preparing for the discussion, I kept gravitating back to

one overarching phenomenon: the scourge of fast-food marketing.

The fast-food phenomenon originated in southern California after the Second World War. The appearance of small drive-in or drive-thru diners serving quick food, with minimum need for utensils, melded with the emerging car culture of the time.

In the 1950s, fast-food was a localized fad in southern California.

How things have changed.

In his 2001 book “Fast Food Nation,” Eric Schlosser observed how fast-food joints now occupy every nook and cranny of North America.

“In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2000, they spent more than $110 billion. Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars.”

I recall that throughout the 1990s, fast-food joints started following the trend toward healthy eating. They introduced salads and wraps and yogurt and fruit. At least, finally, there was an option.

Then something happened. In 1998, A&W decided to go retro. And not just with design.

They brought back fatty favourites like the burger family, with its three-patty grandfather burger, and chubby chicken. It was a strategic departure from the health-conscious movement, and other chains soon followed suit.

A few years later, Wendy’s introduced the Baconator — “two 1/4 lb. patties topped with fresh-cooked Applewood Smoked Bacon in between a premium warm, toasted bun, topped off with mayo, ketchup and American cheese.”

These days, fast-food chains have no qualms about plugging huge, heart-stopping wads of meat and bun. Or even just skipping the bun. In 2010, KFC introduced the Double Down. It’s “bacon, two different kinds of melted cheese, the Colonel’s secret sauce … pinched in between two pieces of Original Recipe chicken fillets.”

When I was young, trips to the burger or chicken joint were a rare treat. It was a money-conscious thing as much as junk food avoidance.

Nowadays, it’s a weekly routine for most. A 2010 Yale University study found 40 per cent of U.S. parents reported their child asked to go to McDonald’s at least once a week, and 15 per cent of preschoolers’ parents said they fielded such a request every day. Most of the parents gave in: 84 per cent reported bringing their two-to-11-year-olds to a fast-food restaurant within the previous week.

It’s unlikely those numbers vary much in Canada, and that goes for larger Newfoundland centres.

But our traditional cuisine is also, on average, high in salt and fat. From salt meat and fish to scrunchions, from Jiggs Dinner to toutons and molasses, there’s not a lot on our celebrated menu that can be considered good for you, unless you’re counterbalancing it with a vigorous traditional lifestyle of hauling nets and cutting wood.

In some circles here, vegetables are seen as foreign objects, meant to be ignored or discreetly dumped in the nearest flower pot.

You may say this is nothing new, that fast food has been around for a long time. Perhaps things have changed since 2001, when Schlosser wrote “Fast Food Nation.”

Well, this is Schlosser in 2011, writing for The Daily Beast:

“More than a decade has passed since ‘Fast Food Nation’ was published, and I’d love to report that the book is out of date, that the many problems it describes have been solved, and that the Golden Arches are now the symbol of a fallen empire, like the pyramids at Giza. Sadly, that is not the case. Every day about 65 million people eat at a McDonald’s restaurant somewhere in the world, more than ever before.”

Obesity rates, he notes, have increased in lock-step.

“About two thirds of the adults in the United States are obese or overweight. The obesity rate among preschoolers has doubled in the past 30 years. The rate among children aged 6 to 11 has tripled.”


Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. Email: pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Canadian Medical Association, Cross-Canada, Yale University

Geographic location: Southern California, Canada, North America United States Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • Cyril Rogers
    June 05, 2013 - 11:03

    It is easy to focus on the "obvious" culprits like fat and salt but it may not be that simple. As "Mainlander" indicates the genetically-modified foods that the corporate food barons now control show up in many hidden ways and are more likely contributors to the obesity issue that these old standbys. We are being hoodwinked by big industry and governments are doing little or nothing to protect an often unsuspecting public from the kind of hidden food ingredients or misleading labeling that may be a bigger problem than fat or salt.

  • mainlander
    June 05, 2013 - 10:09

    The perception is that processed, packaged food & fast food is cheaper than real food. Real food is affordable but it's not a money maker for grocery chains. They make their money from unhealthy, chemical and GMO-laden crap. Peter, you should do a story about GMO's, what they are and what foods they are in so people are educated about what they are eating. If people knew that corn, sugar beets & soy were grown with the pesticide inside, and these are in almost everything in the grocery store, they would stop buying junk and demand real food be affordable. That's why GMO's aren't labelled. Check out http://www.upworthy.com/why-twinkies-cost-less-than-carrots?c=tkp1