Junk food is not actually cheaper than real food, the New York Times’s Mark Bittman argues. He’s seeking to combat the common notion that one reason people eat so much junk food, and are therefore overweight and in danger of health problems including high blood pressure and diabetes, is because “a bag of chips is cheaper than a head of broccoli”; because it’s cheaper to feed a family of four at McDonald’s than to make them a home-cooked meal. Actually, says Bittman, it’s hyperprocessed food” that remains more expensive than food cooked at home and “the fact is that most people can afford real food.”
Bittman finds that a “typical order” for a family of four at the Golden Arches costs $28: two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas. In contrast, for half the price, you can roast a chicken with vegetables and also have a salad and milk. For even less ($9), “substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions.” So why do people keep giving their money to McDonalds, Taco Bell and the like?#1: Convenience
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First of all, fast food is convenient: “There are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States,” says Bittman. No matter where you look, you’re liable to find some sort of fast-food.
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#2: Good Marketing
Fast food companies forked out $4.2 billion on marketing in 2009 to get you to put your fork into, or rather your fingers around, their offerings: Is it possible for any of us to make it through a day without seeing an ad for fast food of some sort, or passing a McDonalds or Dunkin’ Donuts?
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A 4th reason why we keep slimming our wallets, though not our waistlines, due to fast food:
…the engineering behind hyperprocessed food makes it virtually addictive. A 2009 study by the Scripps Research Institute indicates that overconsumption of fast food “triggers addiction-like neuroaddictive responses” in the brain, making it harder to trigger the release of dopamine. In other words the more fast food we eat, the more we need to give us pleasure; thus the report suggests that the same mechanisms underlie drug addiction and obesity.
This addiction to processed food is the result of decades of vision and hard work by the industry. For 50 years, says David A. Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and author of “The End of Overeating,” companies strove to create food that was “energy-dense, highly stimulating, and went down easy.
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#4: Cooking is Too Much Work
A 4th reason for why fast food is a staple of too many people’s diets is that our culture has come to equate cooking with work. Turning on the stove, chopping vegetables, beating some eggs, washing the dishes and scrubbing the stove are seen as taking simply too much effort when compared with the ease with which you can speed-dial the local pizza place or visit the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru.
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Bittman calls for political and cultural action to change what have become deeply ingrained habits. Some of his suggestions:
- celebrate real food
- raise children in an environment that doesn’t “program them for fast-produced, eaten-on-the-run, high-calorie, low-nutrition junk”
- limit the marketing of junk food, especially to children
- acknowledge that “advertising for fast food is not the exercise of free speech but behavior manipulation of addictive substances”
- make sure real food is affordable and available to everyone
Personally, I can’t bear to eat anything from McDonalds, and I try to cook as much at home as I can. My son does like the occasional McDonalds “burgers ‘n’ fries” — he is a teenage boy — but I know he eats only a tiny fraction of the junk food I’ve seen college students pack away. Our refrigerator is stocked with lots of fruits and vegetables; the cabinets have crackers and other processed items, in moderation. As the best way to get my son to do something I’d rather he not is to tell him “don’t do that” (i.e., if I say “don’t eat all the French fries,” you can be sure he’ll try), I tend to be blasé rather than insistent about him eating fresh fruits and vegetables — and lately, while he still likes those fries, he does eat the grapes, apples and even a bit of salad I put out for him.
We in the US only have ourselves to blame for creating junk food and turning ourselves into junk food junkies. Fast food is costing us not only more money but also our health. Would it kill us to try to spend some more time not “slaving over a hot stove” but enjoying cooking our own food?
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