Fast Food Nation and America’s Sick Diet

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Title: Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal
Author: Eric Schlosser
Original Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Original Publication Date: January 2001
Price: $23.95, paperback, 288 pages



The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about two-thirds of Americans are overweight and one-third of those are morbidly obese. The National Cancer Institute (NCI)’s website has a section called Obesity and Cancer, which lists 13 cancers that are associated with obesity, based on data from large cohort and observational studies. The most common causes of obesity are overeating and being physically inactive. What we consume also plays a significant role in weight gain, such as engineered “hyperpalatable,” so-called fast food, which is laden with salt, sugar, fat, and myriad chemical compounds.

Although the fast food industry is the target of Mr. Schlosser’s exposé, the book speaks to a deeper health issue: seductive marketing of products that are harmful on a population scale.

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Despite the dire toll obesity is taking on our national health, McDonald’s sales are booming, with a record 6% increase in 2017. In 2001, journalist Eric Schlosser wrote about the health dangers associated with junk food in Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, which became a national bestseller and the basis for a major motion picture. More than 15 years later, his book is more relevant to the oncology community, for one, then when first published.

Fast Food Nation is arranged into two sections: The American Way and Meat and Potatoes. Written in crisp journalistic prose, the author’s avalanche of facts and anecdotal observations is bolstered with voluminous notes and interviews. Although the fast food industry is the target of Mr. Schlosser’s exposé, the book speaks to a deeper health issue: seductive marketing of products that are harmful on a population scale.

Readers, even skeptic lovers of the Big Mac, will feel unease when the author describes “flavorists” in laboratories along the New Jersey Turnpike, who, in white lab coats, concoct the “natural and artificial” flavors found in all processed food products. French fries and chicken are infused with essences that mimic beef tallow. Milkshake flavors come out of a test tube and a spiraling list of volatile chemicals render fast food into substances that have a shelf life of about 10 times that of their natural counterparts. And all of this is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The Food Industrial Complex

This book is also a David and Goliath saga, but Mr. Schlosser’s pen, was, as evidenced by the large growth in fast food revenue, no match for the Goliath of McDonald’s, which has become a powerful symbol of America’s service industry—an industry now responsible for about 90% of our nation’s new jobs. The company is the country’s largest purchaser of beef, pork, and potatoes and the second largest purchaser of chicken. And it is the largest owner of retail land in the world. But size and political power, which it has in abundance, does not equal quality, as the author points out graphically in sections such as “What the Kids Eat,” as he described the National School Lunch Program that purchased food on the basis of the lowest price. “USDA’s largest supplier of ground beef for school lunches routinely processed cattle that were dead before arriving to the slaughter house and hid diseased cattle from inspectors, and mixed rotten meat returned by customers into packages of hamburger meat,” the author writes. It gets worse in a chapter called “The Most Dangerous Job,” in which he describes in bloody detail his day in a slaughterhouse.

Is it Possible?

Another fact about our system might give the reader pause. Cattle feed is up to 30% poultry litter that is added as filler protein. It is so toxic with copper that the cattle develop liver disease and the FDA advises ranchers to halt its use less than 21 days before slaughter because of the pharmaceuticals that are present in the litter. Never mind the steroids and massive infusions of antibiotics.

No one of good will and sound mind can deny the health claims in this powerful book. Fast food is not the sole cause of obesity and obesity-related diseases such as cancer. But huge corporations like McDonald’s, with their seductive advertising, especially to kids, are a large part of this national health disaster. Fast Food Nation ends with a clarion call that has already fallen on too many deaf ears: “Nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food, but the first step toward meaningful change is by far the easiest: Stop buying it.”

This is an important book that deals with critical issues of health that plague our nation. It is highly recommended for The ASCO Post readers. ■