Image from tspauld.
There is an increasing movement today to compare America’s fast food companies to the cigarette industry. Yes, it’s true that they both sell products which have the potential to endanger one’s health if used. Smoking a pack of cigarettes every day and eating three big macs every day can yield to similar degrees of health problems.
This is much of the logic behind a movement to punish the fast food industry. Many people are suing McDonalds, Burger King, and other firms, claiming various things, all of which amount to an accusation that these fast food firms are creating an environment in which people are “encouraged” to eat poorly, thus acting as a main cause for obesity.
Let’s stop for one second. Why does any firm choose to sell a particular product? The answer is simple: because consumers are demanding it. It’s not as if McDonald’s spontaneously decided that it would create a large number of unhealthy, affordable foods. McDonald’s, like any successful firm, responded to market demand for food. Americans have shown that they want fast, cheap, affordable food, with large portion sizes. Nutritional information seems to be secondary. Because of this, McDonald’s has given them fast, cheap, affordable food in large portion sizes. Is it wrong that they responded to demand?
One argument against this is that fast food firms are “misleading” consumers, making them believe they are eating something healthy or healthy-esque when they are not. This is false. The majority of fast food restaurants I have been inside list nutritional facts in pamphlets or posters inside the restaurant. If they don’t have it listed, you can request it from the company, or go online to NutritionData or a similar website to see exactly what the nutrition facts are. The argument that consumers are being misled doesn’t really hold water – especially with the media attention fast food gets today.
Another argument is that fast food, like cigarettes, is addicting. It is claimed that individuals can become addicted to eating fast food, similar to the fact that individuals can become addicted to smoking cigarettes. It is true that individuals can become addicted to eating fast food. But it’s also true that individuals can become addicted to anything. I am addicted to running. I love it, and when I don’t do it I get irritable and cranky. This does not mean that running shoe manufacturers should be sued. The difference in cigarettes is that nicotine creates an addiction beyond “natural” addictions that humans can develop towards a particular activity. Thus, the addiction argument is weak.
One final argument against fast food is that humans are preconditioned to eat fatty foods, thus when lots of it is readily available to us, we can’t help ourselves but eat it frequently. To this argument, one must also consider that humans have the ability to make rational choices that differ from our primal urges. Sure, there is plenty of evidence that the human body likes to consume fatty foods to protect against starvation that occurred in humanity’s past. However, the defining feature of a human is the ability to go beyond what our bodies urge us to do. I’m fairly certain this rationality can encompass the decision to eat a healthy selection of foods.
It’s not simply fast food companies’ fault that obesity is rising in the US. To try to place the blame for obesity on them, or a large percentage of it, is to do no more than creating a scapegoat. Fast food is different than tobacco. Smoking can do little but cause harm. Fast food actually has benefits if eaten occasionally, and only becomes dangerous in excess. The fast food industry should not be targeted as the main cause of obesity.