Monday, November 17, 2003

Fast food and the economy

We went to a pot-luck dinner, and this got me thinking about the "fast food industry."

The obvious thing about a pot-luck dinner is that you have to bring something. The other thing about a pot-luck dinner (especially if it is with a smaller group of friends, as opposed to a large picnic or a big church event) is that people are going to see what you bring. Therefore, you want to bring something "good."

You are unlikely to bring something that is "heart healthy" to a pot-luck event. A low-salt, low-fat, low-cholesterol sort of dish is the wrong thing to bring because no one is going to eat it. You want it to taste good, so that people think you are a good cook. You are therefore going to add in the ingredients that people like to eat -- salt, fat, sugar, etc. You want to make a good impression, and the easiest way to accomplish that goal is to bring really good-tasting food. It's unfortunate that the ingredients that make food taste "really good" have "really bad" health consequences, but for a pot luck dinner the health consequences are irrelevant. The short-term social value of making a good impression outweighs any long-term health effects.

Now you start to think about this in the context of a restaurant, and especially fast food restaurants. Fast food restaurants are businesses, so their goal is to make as much money as possible. Therefore, a fast food restaurant wants to make a good impression so you will come back again and spend more money. The easiest way to get you to come back is to serve you something that tastes really good. "Good taste" to a human being means lots of salt, fat and sugar. If a fast food restaurant does not use these ingredients, then there's a good chance that you are not going to come back -- the food somewhere else will taste better, and you will go there instead.

The same rules apply to businesses that produce "junk food" -- soft drinks, potato chips, cookies, candy bars, etc. Salt, fat and sugar taste good, so junk food contains lots of salt, fat and sugar. The more junk food you eat, the more money the company makes. Salt, fat and sugar cause you to eat more.

It really is unfortunate that these ingredients are unhealthy, but it is also irrelevant. The short-term desire to get you to consume more hamburgers, french fires, soda and chips -- and therefore to make more money -- far outweighs any health consequences. Those health consequences are not going to show up for years. Also, there is no penalty (so far) for leading customers toward obesity and diabetes. In that sort of environment, the short-term goal of revenue is going to win. The result is the fast food and junk food landscape we see today.

Here's another funny thing to think about. There are many large businesses that now benefit from the current fast food and junk food landscape. For example, any pharmaceutical company that makes medicines for high blood pressure, diabetes and other problems associated with obesity is going to think that obesity is good, not bad. These pharmaceutical companies actually have an interest in people eating poorly. Hospitals that treat obesity-related illnesses and perform procedures like heart bypass surgery also have a vested interest in obesity. Health insurance companies, which make a percentage of the money they charge the insured, would like to see health care costs go up rather than down because they make more money that way. Then there are all the companies that cater to the obese: dieting products, dieting books, dieting aids, exercise equipment, weight loss centers, gyms, etc. They all think fast food and junk food are great, because wide-spread obesity means more customers. Then think about all of the advertising dollars spent by fast food companies, junk food companies, diet product companies and pharmaceutical companies. That's probably half of all advertising dollars spent.

In other words, sugar, fat and salt are great for the economy in many different ways.

It's funny -- our economy would probably collapse if it weren't for fast food and junk food. It's unfortunate that the only people who don't benefit from sugar, fat and salt are the people who eat it, and there is no economic benefit in them being well.

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