It’s no secret that I’m not a giant fan of CNN.com’s science reporting, especially in recent years. But when I happened upon this story by chef Virginia Willis on CNN.com’s “Eatocracy” section, I felt that it went a little too far over the line of rhetoric trumping responsible reporting, and deserved some response. Here are the two opening paragraphs, verbatim:
As a chef and food writer, I rarely eat fast food. The quality is generally atrocious and much of it is radically unhealthy. The menu offerings are the polar opposite of local and seasonal. There are dire implications concerning worker’s rights and wages, as well as animal welfare and factory farms.
It doesn’t matter where you are in the country, every interstate exit is identical with the same usual suspects offering the same sad sacks of chemically laced, artificially flavored fare, all swimming in high-fructose corn syrup. Cheap, fast food is at the core of what is wrong with our food system.
This is pop tripe. Her worst points are wrong, her best are debatable. It has long been politically correct to bash fast food, and this article opens with all the most tired cheap shots that are unworthy of a culinary professional.
Ironically, her article goes on to discuss how much she likes Chick-fil-A, a fast food restaurant serving basically the same chicken and HFCS soft drinks as other fast food restaurants — she fails to convincingly argue why the same food is OK when Chick-fil-A serves it, but not other similar chains. But, be that as it may; today I’d like to address Willis’ points from her opening paragraphs. Too many people blindly accept such pop attacks on fast food without reflection on the facts.
Let’s go point by point:
The quality is generally atrocious…
I’d say the quality is almost always exactly up to expectations; I don’t get an especially sloppy cardboard burger any more often than I get a restaurant meal that fails to delight. If she’s saying a cheeseburger is not French cuisine, well, no duh, it’s not intended to be. Without defining “quality” this statement is really just a weasel word to poison the well. If she means the flavor, well, that’s purely a matter of opinion.
…and much of it is radically unhealthy.
I will have this argument all day long. I’ve investigated this for Skeptoid, and this is simply untrue. The ingredients used in fast food are the same as used in fine restaurants and that you can buy in a supermarket. If you’re talking about calories, I call BS. The typical fast food meal is actually quite small and takes 5 minutes to eat, compared to almost any restaurant meal where you spend a solid hour eating almost constantly. The worst offenders — naturally sweetened soft drinks (sugar or HFCS) and milk shakes — are identical to what you’d get ordering the same thing at a restaurant or buying it from the supermarket. This myth that fast food is magically unhealthy is simply not supported by any facts.
Indeed, it’s a valid argument that the opposite is true. No one will ever die from malnutrition eating fast food: it’s got just about everything your body needs. Eat four 510-calorie Big Macs a day and you’ll lose weight, and get more protein and vitamins than you would from most other similarly caloric diets. If you don’t believe that, do the research for yourself, instead of simply parroting ideologically-driven pop tripe.
The menu offerings are the polar opposite of local and seasonal.
So what? There’s no benefit to either. Locally-grown is a fine boutique experience, but as I’ve written before, there’s no other real benefit. It’s also usually worse for the environment, contrary to what appears obvious.
There are dire implications concerning worker’s rights and wages…
I am not aware that this problem is specific to fast food chains at all. BusinessInsider.com found that a lot of fast food chains are beloved by their employees. I’m unconvinced that this is not the case with most any industry.
…as well as animal welfare and factory farms.
Again, any issues that exist are common to the food industry as a whole, not to a given category of restaurant. And exactly what is a “factory farm” besides a weaselly way to say “farm”?
It doesn’t matter where you are in the country, every interstate exit is identical with the same usual suspects offering the same sad sacks of chemically laced…
“Chemically laced”? What chemicals? What are these malevolent “chemicals” found in fast food that are not common to all food?
…artificially flavored fare…
Really? OK, let’s take a McDonald’s combo. Soft drink, sure; same as you’d get if you bought a Coke anywhere. What’s the “artificial flavor” in the fries? Nothing. What’s the artificial flavor in the cheeseburger? The only possibility I can think of is the Heinz ketchup; but according to Heinz, it’s all natural flavoring. Willis just parroted something that seemed obvious to her, but does not appear to be supported by facts. I’ve seen nothing to indicate that artificial flavoring is more common in fast food than in regular supermarket food.
…all swimming in high-fructose corn syrup.
Really? Obviously this is hyperbole. Pretty useless hyperbole, too. HFCS is no more common on fast food menus than it is on any other menu. Even if it were, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it that you couldn’t say about regular sugar.
Cheap, fast food is at the core of what is wrong with our food system.
I’m going to disagree wholeheartedly. The abundant availability of cheap, fast food shows that our food system has reached the pinnacle of success. This perspective is symptomatic of someone with many snobby choices — and offering many choices, catering to anyone’s personal preferences, should be the ultimate goal of any nation’s food system. Ask someone in Ethiopia, Eritrea, DRC, Sierra Leone, Burundi or Chad if they would consider abundant cheap food choices to be a sign of their food system’s failure.
It’s perfectly fine to dislike fast food, or high-calorie food, or whatever it is that you don’t care for. If you think Americans eat too many calories and you want to place the blame on the food providers, then place it equally among everyone who offers over-calorific food — starting with Starbuck’s and big-plate sit-down restaurants. Simply parroting pop pseudo-food-facts is part of the overall problem of a lack of critical thinking in society.
(For those bound to ask: My favorite fast food chains are Five Guys, Baja Fresh, Burger King, and KFC. My least favorite are Del Taco, Jack in the Box, and so far, Chick-fil-A has failed to impress despite several fair attempts.)