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Americans Are Obsessed with Fast Food: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

In today's CBS HealthWatch, Eric Schlosser explains why Americans are obsessed with fast food, and tells us more about his book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.

Interview with Eric Schlosser

1. Why did you choose to write about fast food?

It seems that we all eat fast food. At least one quarter of American adults eat fast food everyday. And one out of every eight adults has worked at some time during his or her lives. I think it's important that people know what they are eating and especially to know what their children are eating. After reading the book, people can decide if they want to continue eating fast food or not. I use to eat hamburgers before I wrote the book, but now I don't, but I still love French fries.

2. Why do you think fast food is so popular?

It's easy, it's filling, and it's convenient and inexpensive. Compared to other foods it's something that working people and ordinary people can go out and enjoy. McDonalds is the most popular fast food chain. The all-American meal is hamburger, fries and a coke or a shake. McDonald's revolutionized fast food. They introduced a way to eat food without knives, forks or plates. Most fast foods can be eaten while steering the wheel of a car and the restaurants are usually drive through. The design of a fast food restaurant is very well thought out. The seats in fast food restaurants are comfortable but not too comfortable and the colors are bright primary colors, which are designed to make you sit but eventually get up and leave. They don't want you to linger to long.

Fast food meals have come a long way from hamburgers. The new "wrap" concept is also considered fast food and is the newest concept in the fast food business. The chicken nugget changed the way Americans ate chicken. The overwhelming majority of chicken sold is as chunks and processed meat as opposed to whole birds. In the fast food, chicken has twice as much fat as hamburgers because they are fried. But continue to gain popularity with the public.

Most fast food is fried. Fried food tastes great, and people don't seem to care about the fat aspect. Only a few fast food companies such as Kentucky Fried Chicken has changed its name (to KFC,) in order to be more responsible in the way the company is presented to the public. I don't think people's eating habits have become healthier. Right now, in the fast food industry the trend is to add bacon to their meals. Only "Subway" is working to promote a more healthy way of eating.

3. What would surprise people the most about fast food?

The food looks like food that you would make in your kitchen, but it actually has become a manufactured commodity. French fries at all the fast food chains use to be made by potatoes peeled in the back room and cut into strips. Today they are made in large factories, frozen and processed. Some of the ingredients (oils and fatsare highly processed and very fatty.

The size of the meal you order makes a huge difference. Fast food portions are enormous. The fast food chains have been making larger sized items at really no cost to the company.

4. What kind of marketing strategy do the fast food industry use?

Fast food chains spend a large amount of marketing to get the attention of children. People form their eating habits as children so they try to nurture clients as youngsters. It's very important that the fast food companies make sure that their fast food meals for children are healthier. Parents think that chicken meals are healthier than burgers, but they are not since they are fried.

5. What's in the meat of a typical fast food hamburger?

Hamburgers are now made in gigantic factories. There was a time when hamburgers were made from beef from one cow. Fast food chains use to buy their meat from local suppliers in a local region. So fewer cattle were use to get the meat. The fast food chain had such a demand for hamburger meat that tasted the same they helped create factories to make ground beef. It's all very scientific. Today a typical fast food hamburger has dozens or hundreds of strips of beef from different cattle, in different regions blended together. So, if you have one sick cow in the batch, then the risk of getting sick is greater.

6. How much of fast food is flavored?

Just about all the food in a fast food industry is processed, so much of the flavor is destroyed. So flavor has to be added. For example chicken McNuggets contain different additives including beef extract, the French fries contain animal products and they won't say which animal, and the buns and condiments also have artificial additives added to them.

7. With more people eating fast food, what kind of effect does it have on the public health?

The real cost of eating the food isn't reflected in the price on the menu. This food tastes good is the salt, fat and sugars added to it. So when you look at the rise in the obesity rate of people and the rise in the success of the fast food chains they parallel each other. About 300,000 people die each year from being obese or overweight, this is second only to smoking. Fast food isn't the only reason people are gaining weight, but it contributes to it.

Interview with Cathy Nonas, a dietitian at St. Lukes-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York

Parents and these companies should be more responsible when it comes to consuming and marketing fast food to children.

Fast food is heavy on fat, salt and sugar, and reduced nutrient. Fifteen percent of American children are overweight and the number is growing. Fast food is quick and easy and working parents resort to it and it's no fuss and you get a toy.

When your kid is three or four, you shouldn't feed them fast food. When they get older, they will hang out at fast food placs. They don't need to eat an entire value meal. A value meal doesn't save you money. Try to incorporate a salad and vegetables into the meal. Consume smaller portions, no combos, choose the one you want the most (not a burger, fries and a coke).

Fast Food Facts From 'Fast Food Nation'

  • This year Americans will spend over $110 billion on fast food more than they'll spend on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music combined.

  • Every day about one quarter of the U.S. population eats fast food.

  • Roughly 12% of all American workers have worked at McDonald's.

  • The golden arches are now more widely recognized than the Christian cross.

  • Children often recognize the McDonald's logo before they recognize their own name.

  • American children now get about one quarter of their total vegetable servings in the form of potato chips and French fries.

  • The typical teenage boy in the United States now gets about 10% of his daily calories from soda.

  • The rate of obesity among American children has doubled since the late 1970s.

  • A fast food soda that sells for $1.29 costs the restaurant about ten cents, a markup of more than 1200 percent.

  • McDonald's is now the nation's largest purchaser of beef, pork, and potatoes. It is the second-largest purchaser of chicken in the U.S.

  • Hundreds of local slaughterhouses used to supply the United States with beef; today thirteen large slaughterhouses supply most of the nation's beef.

  • A typical fast food hamburger contains meat from dozens or even hundreds of cattle.

  • Because fast food is so highly processed, much of its flavor is destroyed, so the tastes of most fast food are manufactured at a series of special chemical plants in New Jersey.

  • Chicken McNuggets contain beef additives, while McDonalds French fries derive some of their flavor from "animal products."

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