A colleague of mine recently invited me to join him for lunch at a local hamburger joint. He said, jokingly but ominously, "I’m heading over there because I’m down a quart of oil!"
Yes, we may all crave the calories, fat, salt and sugar that come with burgers, pizzas, doughnuts, burritos, ice cream and other fast foods, but it is in our interest to exercise moderation (at least) and to consider alternatives.
If you are eating out, the fast food industry is bringing cheaper meals to consumers in a time of recession around the world, but often at the cost of personal health. As well, questions continue to be raised about their global labour and environmental standards.
You may have thought that the fast food industry was actually on the downslide. Did you think that all those McDonald’s, Tim Hortons and other chains were getting a little shopworn and that people were deciding to make more meals at home, thinking more about healthy choices and giving up on poor service? Well, you are wrong.
The Global Digital Media Network tells us that a new phenomenon, "eating down," is occurring, where people who eat out are abandoning independent restaurants for the low prices, quick delivery and generic fare of multinational outlets. While this means that the average restaurant meal sold is now cheaper, it also means that local, independent eateries are being decimated.
This column addressed the issue of the double burden of Health a year ago. The idea is that people around the world now eat at McDonalds-type franchises. The traditional health problems that poor people faced overseas were caused largely by poverty, that is disease, death in childbirth, kids dying before they reach five years old. Now, in our "modern age," we have added new health challenges to the poor of the world, via fast foods, low-wage urban 3D jobs (dirty, dangerous and demeaning) and pollution (garbage, motor vehicles). So, clogging up our arteries and raising our blood pressure aren’t only rich world issues!
A recent count tells us that McDonald’s, as one example, now has 32,000 outlets in 117 countries. It employs almost two million people and makes billions in profits each year. When sales did experience a decline 10 years ago due to negative publicity on its health, labour and environmental impacts, McDonald’s undertook a product and image retrofit.
While some real change occurred, it is significant that much of the work done was promotional. As well, massive companies are difficult to keep to a certain standard as they vary in how they are owned and managed, face different regulations in different jurisdictions and access their product from various sources.
In this case, to name a few initiatives, McDonald’s began to bring in salad options, post ingredient lists and ask customers for their feedback.
On the positive side of the ledger, in the United Kingdom and Ireland, the company ensures that its hamburgers are now 100 per cent beef with no additives and that the chicken, pork and beef it uses have not been fed genetically-modified grain. Their fish, they say, is sourced from sustainable fisheries and potatoes from independent farmers. Salt and sugar have been reduced (although controversy has erupted in Canada over our salt content). Work is being done to reduce waste with more recycling of packaging and even of vegetable oil.
However, fast food chains in general continue to be dogged by reports of factory farming of products, harassment of workers, cleanliness of operations and more.
The Healthy Fast Food website makes some useful suggestions for the person venturing into that local hamburger, pizza or doughnut shop.
Make careful menu selections, focusing on ordering vegetables and leaner meats (have the veggie pizza or the grilled chicken burger). Avoid dressings and mayonnaise, when you can just use ketchup or mustard, and choose water instead of soft drinks. Don’t order the "super-sized," as just eating less is a good strategy for keeping healthy. Special order — even the chains are now prepared to make your meal, within their parameters, as you would like it.
But also remember your place in the global food chain and don’t be afraid to be an active part of it.
Remember to support local independent restaurants, make as many meals at home as your schedule allows (healthier and cheaper), and consume ample amounts of fresh vegetables and fruit.
During the warmer months, plant your garden and/or frequent farmers markets for the best in fresh food. And look for organic and fair trade options — the selection is growing and the prices are coming down as more people make those choices.
It’s all food for thought!
» Zack Gross works for the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations active in our province.