Processing what it is we eat
Coming back for seconds
by Erik Aker
November 22, 2006
Ventura County Reporter
Fast Food Nation changed the way America thinks about food. How far do we still need to go?
On Friday, Nov. 17, at theaters around the country appeared an unexpectedly ambitious film based on Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, a nonfiction blast at the culture and commodities of the fast-food industry. First published in 2001, Schlosser’s book analyzed not only the history of companies like McDonald’s, but also their advertising to children, their exploitation of teen workers and the synthetic flavor compounds in their foods. Schlosser went further than this, too, connecting trends in fast food with the growth of American suburbs and their reliance upon automobiles, with consolidation in the meatpacking industry (four meatpacking firms now slaughter 84 percent of all beef consumed in the U.S.) and with the pressure on small ranchers and chicken growers that has resulted from the explosion of restaurants selling burgers and McNuggets.
Armed with his avalanche of facts (he researched the book for two years), Schlosser built an argument that was cohesive and consistent and, somewhat unexpectedly, audiences loved it. In 2002, Fast Food Nation was among the top-10 best-selling paperbacks of the year; it remained on The New York Times best-seller list for two years. At this point, the book has been translated into 20 languages, has sold millions of copies around the world and is now used in college classrooms around the country.
All of this is notable, in part because Fast Food Nation originally was not accompanied by the hype that usually attends books expected to be best-sellers. Its reviewers, for example, did not anticipate its success. Rob Walker reviewed the book for The New York Times Book Review in 2001, and as he remembers, “So far as I’m aware, there wasn’t any huge prepublication marketing blitz or anything; it wasn’t one of those books that gets a lot of hype in advance.”
So what made people read the book? One of its attractions may be the volume of data it presents. Schlosser collected so much information that at least one jaw-dropping figure is present on every page, all from verifiable sources. In one famous section, for instance, he cites a USDA study of beef-processing plants nationwide that noted that “78.6 percent of the ground beef contained microbes that are primarily spread by fecal matter.” For those who miss the point of this statistic, Schlosser reinterprets it in short form: “There is shit in the meat.”
Not only was the book based on comprehensive and meticulous research, but it was also well-written. Schlosser employed an easy-to-follow organization, and he never engaged in elitism toward his subject or degraded into polemic. Walker confirms, “He did a good job of reporting. He was also making a case that seemed pretty factual, but not shrill; he didn’t come across as an advocate, someone who was an activist who was writing a book.” This is perhaps what gives the book its potency: Schlosser was not a vegetarian, an organic farmer or a Ralph Nader campaign activist. He was simply a journalist.
Of course, McDonald’s hated him. Arguably the world’s most recognizable brand (next to Disney), McDonald’s was inevitably to become the primary target of Fast Food Nation. The company, like Wal-Mart, is easy to bash, in part because it has achieved a scale that other businesses slavishly envy: 73 percent of U.S. households live within three miles of a McDonald’s, and an estimated one out of every eight workers in the U.S. has at some point worked at one. McDonald’s is also the largest owner of retail property in the world; it spends more money on advertising than any other brand; it operates more playgrounds than any private entity in the U.S., has the nation’s bestselling line of children’s clothes and is one of the largest distributors of toys.
It’s difficult to say whether Schlosser’s book directly impacted the monolithic McDonald’s, but the restaurant did post its first quarterly loss in the 50-year history of the company in 2002, one year after the book’s publication. More abstractly, Fast Food Nation was so widely read that it is now firmly lodged in the discussion of food, and its legacy has been to open up a whole field of possibility for popular nonfiction that hasn’t been touched since Upton Sinclair penned The Jungle. Schlosser’s work inspired the production of works like Morgan Spurlock’s popular film Supersize Me (2004), which prompted McDonald’s to stop supersizing meals six months after its release. This summer saw publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, a Schlosser-esque comparison of food options available to American consumers, as well as a host of other food-analysis books. In May of this year, Schlosser also published Chew On This!, a version of Fast Food Nation aimed at middle-schoolers.
Food is an extremely popular topic right now, and it hasn’t been such a hot topic, perhaps, since processed foods first started making it onto the market in the ’50s and ’60s. At that time, highly processed foods were strange and new, and they were sold in different ways from their contemporary counterparts.
“A lot of this has to do with notions of modernity,” argues Felicity Northcott, an anthropologist at Johns-Hopkins University. “What you had were TV dinners, for instance, and the idea was that people who are smart and educated didn’t really need to cook anymore. So you had all of these processed foods and it was a sign of being modern, eating foods that were highly processed.”
In the early years of processed foods, modern living meant modern food, which doesn’t rot or mold and tastes great five months (or five years in some cases) after it was manufactured. Taste is important, of course, and in his work Schlosser is careful not to judge the flavors of fast foods as being mediocre or bland. It turns out, however, that the flavors present in modern fast food and other processed foods are synthesized by chemists in lab coats and manufactured in factories, and that these chemical compounds are present in foods in such tiny amounts that one drop of bell pepper flavoring, for instance, is enough to add flavor to five swimming pools. These flavor compounds are necessary because processing food destroys its flavor and necessitates the addition of synthetic flavors under esoteric names like “natural” and “artificial” flavoring. Thus, in the McNuggets, milkshakes and even the french fries (long praised by the public and even food critics) at McDonald’s, the flavors are simply chemical compounds synthesized in a lab, manufactured on a large scale, and then added to the finished products before they arrive frozen at the restaurants.
For Schlosser, fast food is merely symptomatic of this aspect of the American food system, a system of processed food. Currently, he points out, “90 percent of the money that Americans spend on food is used to buy processed food.” Processed foods are no longer really sold as symbols of modernity because we’re all so used to them, but instead are now offered as inexpensive and convenient alternatives to meals cooked from scratch. Schlosser’s statistic, then, points to the volume of food being used to replace the cooked-from-scratch method. Of course, it makes sense in light of the modern supermarket, where nine out of 10 aisles are devoted to frozen, canned, dried or otherwise manufactured foodstuffs, and the only nonprocessed sections are the produce aisles and the aisles dedicated to nonfood products. The statistic also points to the ways in which most of the food at fast food and other chain restaurants arrives at the restaurants frozen.
These details emerge in a chapter of Fast Food Nation titled “Why the Fries Taste Good,” where Schlosser’s research takes him to a flavor-manufacturing facility in New Jersey. In some cases, he reveals, these added flavors and colors come from unexpected sources. Cochineal extract (or carmine), for instance, comes from the body of an insect that lives in Peru and the Canary Islands. The bug eats a red berry and its body is dried and ground into a pigment that is used to make certain foods look red or pink. “Dannon strawberry yogurt gets its color from carmine,” Schlosser notes, “as do many frozen fruit bars, candies, fruit fillings and Ocean Spray pink grapefruit juice drink.”
These kinds of details are surprising, but this surprise itself demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge on the part of the American consumer. Where does this food come from and what is it? If the old adage about being what you are eating is true, and if we so obviously don’t know where our food comes from, then what can we know about ourselves?
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