I was watching television the other day and rubbed my eyes when on came Ronald McDonald juggling fruit and riding a skateboard. The fast food company's "chief happiness officer," as he's known, is now at the forefront of a campaign to teach kids about healthy eating.
"He's encouraging children to get up on their feet and start moving. So if he is going to teach this, Ronald has to start moving himself," a spokesperson from McDonald's recently explained.
Soon after I learned that new to the McDonald's menu is an Asian salad made of orange-glazed chicken, snow peas, red peppers, mandarin oranges, almonds and green soy beans. And adults who order the menu are given a 15-minute DVD on the benefits of a daily yoga practice.
I think it was about then that I broke down in hysterical laughter. A fast food chain teaching healthy living? What's next -- George Bush promoting renewable energy resources?
Yet it seems that McDonald's, along with Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken (they call themselves KFC so you forget about the "fried" part) and Pizza Hut have all jumped on the healthy eating bandwagon. The message has finally gotten through to the American public that eating large doses of saturated fat, salt and sugar might actually be bad for you.
A Reluctant Move
It has to be said that the move towards healthier eating has been a reluctant one on the part of the fast food corporations. Having survived scandals in the past about allegations of promoting slash and burn policies in the Brazilian rainforests for the cultivation of beef and soya, for a while all was well on the US fast food front. A burger, shake and fries to go were all part of the indisputable American way.
Then along came Morgan Spurlock of "Super Size Me" and spoiled the party by spending an entire month eating nothing but items from the McDonald's menu.
In less than a month Spurlock gained 27 pounds and was warned by his doctor that his liver was "turning into pate." For the first time in the history of America's original fast food chain, consumers were presented with the evidence of what they were letting themselves in for when they went for a Big Mac and fries.
Spurlock himself was inspired by the lawsuits of recent years where obese citizens had begun to sue fast food chains, claiming that their deceptive menus, absence of nutritional information and lack of healthy alternatives forced them into becoming dangerously overweight.
The fast food chains can handle this kind of attention-seeking litigation but they've been fast to get with the times by introducing new, healthier salads and fruit options on their menus.
KFC went one step further by turning the argument on its head and claimed that eating fried chicken was actually part of a healthy lifestyle. After all, in your average chicken breast there are only 3 grams of fat.
KFC was eventually embarrassed into pulling the ads, though, after public health organizations pointed out that very few customers ate their chicken without the skin, breadcrumbs and sauces.
For all of that, obesity rates in America continue to soar (an increase of 75% in the last ten years alone) and there's little doubt that fast food plays an important role in the epidemic.
Burger and pizza outlets are clustered in close concentration around schools, low income housing, even hospitals -- go figure. In fact, the lack of choice has moved some, like New York City Councilman Joel Rivera, to demand that fast food restaurants be thinned out to make way for healthier options.
But what about all the new menus? Surely now consumers have the choice to eat healthily if they want to? No one is forcing the public to supersize their burgers and fries when they could be snacking on a fresh salad, right?
Sadly, just calling an item on the menu a "salad" doesn't make it automatically healthy. Check out Burger King's Chicken Caeser Salad with croutons and Parmasan cheese -- it comes in at 27 grams of fat, 70mg of cholesterol and 18 grams of salt (that's about your recommended daily limit).
Still, leave it to McDonald's to lead the way in deceptive menus: their Crispy Chicken Bacon Ranch salad comes in at 51 grams of fat, 85 mg of cholesterol and 15.7 grams of salt. One wonders whether the medical staff would let Ronald McDonald into the emergency room in his clown outfit when he keels over with cardiac arrest.
And while there are now slices of fruit available on many McDonald's menus, not everyone has quite got the idea that a bit of apple doesn't repair the damage done by a double cheeseburger.
I was in an airport recently in South Carolina and had to blink as I saw 2 ladies in their 50's request to be shuttled across to their entrance gate as they were too overweight to walk there. Of course, the ride left their hands free to open the dressings on their takeaway salads.
That the new salads are mostly health disasters should come as no great surprise when one considers the history of fast food corporations, McDonald's in particular.
In 1990 McDonald's finally owned up to using beef flavoring to cook their fries and ended up paying $10 million to vegetarian organizations, Hindu and Sikh groups, whose religious values were explicitly violated by the hidden ingredient.
In fact, though McDonald's was finally pushed into listing the ingredients and dietary values of their food, they haven't been all that good at it. While they originally claimed their fries only contained 6 grams of trans-fat (fat treated with hydrogen and thought to increase the risk of heart disease), they were eventually forced to admit that the real numbers were 8 grams per serving.
In either case, the American government considers trans fat so dangerous that it recommends a maximum of 2 grams a day.
It should of course come as no big surprise from a company that once argued in court that they were allowed to call their food nutritious because it "contained nutrients." When asked to name a food that didn't contain any nutrients they hesitantly suggested "black tea."
Still, head to McDonald's website and you'll be overwhelmed by their concern for healthy lifestyles. They're sponsoring the Fifa soccer world cup, organising Olympic fun runs and encouraging kids to "get active." The theory presumably being that if you burn off enough calories by hopping about then you can afford to digest a Big Mac.
And if that wasn't enough, then they're proud to announce they have Oprah Winfrey's personal trainer on board whose values of "honesty, responsibility, commitment and inner strength" are all you need to get healthy. Note he doesn't recommend that you try any of the chicken salads along the way.
For an anthropological experiment I went down to a McDonald's one day and ordered a small iced tea, the safest item on the menu. Around 25% of Americans eat fast food every day and I wanted to understand why. The seats were comfortable but not too comfortable, proving a welcoming feel but encouraging you not too linger too long. The prices were low, the service was fast and everywhere there were happy customers eating fried food.
Why do we eat food that is so evidently bad for us?
The answer is simple: It tastes good.
We're encouraged by television from an early age to develop a brand loyalty and we just don't understand how bad fast food is for us. The food is processed and packaged in such a way that most of the flavor is irradicated and so is then pumped full of chemical flavoring from plants in New Jersey to make every burger and fries taste the same. In your average burger there are strips of beef from dozens of cows from many different regions. How much weirder could food get?
Fast Food Nation
We're about to find out. An adaptation of Eric Schlosser's ground-breaking book "Fast Food Nation" is about to hit the cinemas, based around workers at Mikey's, a thinly-disguised model for McDonald's. Expect the beef tallow to hit the fan soon. Chemical flavoring, environmental damage, exploitation of workers and animals are just a few of the charges the film raises.
And, just as fast food chains target kids, there's now a book, "Chew On This," to help children understand just what the menu holds for them.
"The food you eat ... helps determine whether you'll be short or tall, weak or strong, thin or fat. It helps determine whether you will enjoy a long, healthy life or die young.
"So why is it that most people don't think about fast food or know much about it?
"The simple answer is this: the companies that sell fast food don't want you to think about it. They don't want you to know where it comes from or how it's made. They just want you to buy it."
Tom Glaister is the founder and editor of www.roadjunky.com - The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveller.