The American Fast Food Syndrome

Working with people as a nutritionist, I’m often met with resistance. I try to explain making healthful food choices without using trigger words like organic, sustainable, or even local. “When I hear the word organic I think of Birkenstock-wearing hippies in Cambridge, Massachusetts or Berkeley, California,” one of my clients told me recently. Other clients have referred to whole, organic foods as “yuppie food.” There’s no doubt that food choice and diet is an indicator of class and culture, but what perplexes me is this notion that eating a diet of processed, sugary junk foods is what the “real” Americans eat.

According to food historian Felipe Fernandez-Arsmesto, food has always been a marker of class and rank in any particular society. He writes that, “Food became a social differentiator at a remote, undocumented moment when some people started to command more food resources than others.” He goes on to write that, “Class differentiation starts with the crudities of basic economics. People eat the best food they can afford: the preferred food of the rich therefore becomes a signifier of social aspirations.”

But this isn’t true in modern day America. The preferred food of the rich is now considered elitist and scoffed at by many Americans. In fact, there is data to suggest that even though many Americans can afford higher quality foods, they chose to eat cheaper and less nutritious foods. Jane Black and Brent Cunningham recently wrote about this in the Washington Post: “Many in this country who have access to good food and can afford it simply don’t think it’s important. To them, food has become a front in America’s culture wars, and the crusade against fast and processed food is an obsession of ‘elites,’ not ‘real Americans.’”

I would argue that the advertising agencies that work hand-in-hand with the big players of industrial food should take much of the blame for this change. Within the span of three short generations, Americans have come to accept industrial food as their mainstay—not only have they accepted it, they defend it like they’d defend the American flag as a symbol of their patriotism and allegiance with “real” America.

But there’s some perverse logic at work here and it strikes me as vaguely similar to the Stockholm syndrome—a paradoxical psychological phenomenon in which hostages express adulation and positive feelings towards their captors. While Americans are not experiencing a physical captivity, they are deeply mired in a psychological condition in which they’re captive to industrial food products and the corresponding ideologies that are ultimately harming them. Call it the American Fast Food Syndrome.

Part of the problem is that most Americans lack the knowledge that industrial food is a recent development in the history of agriculture. While human beings have been cultivating food for more than 10,000 years, industrial agriculture, as we know it today, has only been around for about 60 years. To many Americans, industrial food is simply food and they assume this is the way it has always been—Americans have all but forgotten that food might be the product of a farm and not a factory. I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached peak indoctrination: two out of three Americans is obese or overweight and one out of five 4-year-olds is obese. This is more than just a coincidence as we embrace our American industrial food diet wholeheartedly.

The fact that food advertising is a completely unregulated force doesn’t help. Advertisers spend billions of dollars on campaigns to make us want to buy their products. In her book Diet for a Hot Planet, Anna Lappé writes of a sly technique advertisers often use, “The food industry…is skilled at inoculation messaging, and part of its success comes from the ‘we’re one of you’ pitch.” She adds later, “The message, whether from Perdue, Nestle, or Cargill, is that these companies are like us; they care about the same things we do. It’s a message that forms another strand of the inoculation strategy.”

This “we’re one of you” ideology coupled with the food product’s corresponding affordability is slick marketing at its best.

You may remember a similar strategy used by Sarah Palin and John McCain in their 2008 Presidential campaign. Palin’s constant invocation of Joe the Plumber, Joe Six Pack, and soccer moms was the same “we’re one of you” rhetoric. Palin worked this angle again recently when she came running to the defense of the “real” Americans as she personally gave out cookies to elementary school students in her effort to stop the food police from depriving children of their god-given right to eat sugar-laden, processed foods.

These messages, from advertisers and politicians alike, are drowning out a sensible approach to healthy eating and improved quality of life for many Americans. I know that when people stop eating processed foods and start cooking whole foods, it’s nothing short of a revelation. My clients experience a transformation when they cut out junk foods—they lose weight, improve chronic health conditions, and feel better than they ever have before. Unfortunately, many Americans who really need guidance on healthy eating and cooking don’t have it. What they do have is a constant barrage of advertising for cheap industrial foods paired with the all-American rhetoric of Sarah Palin and her ilk.

Until all Americans see industrial food for what it really is, educating on healthier food options will remain a cultural battle. We can blame specific ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup or trans-fats indefinitely, but for a large portion of Americans their cultural identity is tied up in Big Macs, fries, and Cokes. As long as the food industry continues to succeed at imbuing their products with a particular sense of American authenticity, and as long as Americans continue to buy this image, while rejecting the organic, sustainable, and local food movement as part of some liberal agenda, we will remain a country in the midst of a dire health and food crisis.

This article is part of a regular column by nutrition expert Kristin Wartman, in which she examines food, nutrition, and the way the industrial food industry affects our food system and our health.

22 thoughts on “The American Fast Food Syndrome

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  3. Very well-put! I especially like how you used the Stockholm Syndrome comparison to illustrate the wool that industrial food manufacturers have pulled over many peoples eyes.

    I am a low-to-middle income woman with two children. Between us, my husband and I make around $40K a year to support our family of 4. I live in New England, where the small and local movement is huge. My husband and I have chosen to eat as locally and organic as possible, even though it is more expensive. Despite the expense, nothing will ever get me to believe that strawberries sprayed with pesticide or processed food is somehow OK to eat. I know better, and I am not an elite academic from Cambridge (although, I DO wear Birkenstock, but that is because I am German!).

    Rather, we feel a deep value is added to our lives by consuming food grown by our neighbors. It builds community and a sense of place — things I never felt when buying Frito chips or GMO tomatoes at the mega grocery store.

    Come on over to this side, people! The food tastes better!

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  5. You’ve hit it on the head! Whenever I go back to Missouri or Louisiana, I’m stunned that everyone there (surrounded by farmland) is eating “chicken tenders” from a box, tamales out of a can, mushy broccoli and cheese sauce out of a bag, and fast food from day to night. Fresh vegetables from the farms, actual chicken that wasn’t fried in a restaurant, and fruits from the orchards are hardly to be seen. Of course, part of that’s because most of the farmers are now working for big businesses, a change lamented by most there. But if they wanted to have a family farm, who would support it? There are a few here and there, and it’s not that it’s impossible to find real food there, but it’s just such a contrast. Wouldn’t supporting small farmers and eating actual apples and non-imported lettuce and so on be the American thing to do?

    It’s the weirdest thing to return to my urban life, where there are four year-round farmers’ markets within 30 minutes of me. In one week I speak to more people who actually work in the fields than any of my friends back in “the heartland” do! I don’t understand how things got so strange.

  6. As someone living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, let me set the record straight that I do not see many Birkenstocks, nor hardly any hippies. You’re more likely to see Harvard Business school types, not sure what they eat.

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  8. Great article, Kristen! I loved that you’ve put a name to this country’s food systems crisis. And also the comparison to political framing used so effectively (sadly) by Palin and her fellow Tea Partiers. I hope your piece gets broad circulation.

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  11. Well said. We’re like the proverbial frogs in boiling water, not aware that we’ve been cooked, until it’s too late. How did we so easily trade a connection to the land for deep-fried, corn-syrup laden, junk?

  12. So then the question, I guess, is how should we better talk about healthy, wholesome foods so as to not have the backlash that “organic,” “sustainable” and “local” have run into?

    “Traditional” ways of eating? Old-fashioned? Wholesome? Healthy? Non-corporate? Anybody have any good ideas?

    By the way, there’s an interesting related piece by Jane Black in the WAshington Post called “The new front in culture wars: food”
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/26/AR2010112603494.html

  13. Fantastic article! The psychology behind healthy vs poor diets really fascinates me and this is useful is pinpointing what’s going on. Excited to learn about your blog – I’ll be following it for sure!

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  15. Good points, as a farmer, both commodity and direct/local (we just sold a whole grassfed pig to a restaurant today) might I suggest that part of the language barrier that sustainable, organic, local food folks have when trying to convert Red Blooded American food types is the barrier of capitalism. Alternative farmers make money! They get more for their hard work than do their conventional farmer brethren. Commodity farmers have had it beaten into us that it is noble to work for low prices because we’re “feeding the world(!)”.
    Imagine if the Birkenstock crowd stops using the word “sustainable” and started using the word “profitable”. I know, I know, it goes against your hippie programming, but hey, “sustainable” cues all sorts of images for a lot of farmers, for better or for worse. Everyone loved Joel Salatin in Food Inc., but they failed to mention that aside from healing the land and producing good food, he’s also a millionaire.

  16. Well put! Somewhere along the line, good, frank food became a cultural call to arms. Supporting local farmers and healthy eating has – to some industrial marketers and politicians – become a source of ueber-liberal, elitist derision. Wrote a piece in similar vein if you’re interested: http://tinyurl.com/2d26o6u. The Stockholm Syndrome is an interesting analogy. Will definitely spread the word on this.

  17. Thank you for this article!

    Here’s what’s been irking me:

    When it’s my turn to host “treat day” at work, I usually have my bag from Whole Foods filled with stuff (now, mind you, it’s usually the processed stuff from Whole Foods because I’ve already tried bringing in local cheese from the market and cherry tomatoes from my backyard – was not a hit). The comment I get is “Whole Foods is so expensive”… Yet, these people are driving Escalades and carrying Iphones?!?

    That, or scoffs from a former friend who insists her weekly manicure is really important yet thinks it’s riduculous to even consider buying fresh produce because it’s so expensive and she doesn’t know how to cook it.

    So, as I see it, the question is – how do we get people to see that learning to cook and buy good food is a priority, worthy of extra expense? In other words, what makes people spend so much more on a car, or on a cell phone, when cheaper options are available? It’s either a perception about quality or aspirations towards something better.

    Ever since I came to that revelation, I quit talking about the importance of eating whole ingredients and not using pesticides when people ask about my food buying habits. Instead, I say things like: I can’t believe how much better cilantro tastes when it’s right out of my back yard. Or fresh food from the farmers market really does taste a lot better than the grocery store’s produce. All of those things are true but rarely the main talking points.

  18. I agree with Christy. This country’s priorities are all out of whack. I forget the actual percentages, but this country spends less of a percentage of income on food than ever before, and unfortunately many other countries are copying that model. It can be quite frustrating when trying to demonstrate to others that real, good food is worth the investment. The main thing to remember is to meet people where they are and go from there. Within this foodie blogosphere world it’s probably not too harmful to mention and scold highly polarizing political figures such as Sarah Palin in relating to food issues…but out in the real world, if we really want to get things done and change minds we must begin to detach ourselves from that identity of sustainable food only being a trendy,liberal, elitist, yuppy concern.

  19. It’s worth repeating C. Lewis’ last statement:

    but out in the real world, if we really want to get things done and change minds we must begin to detach ourselves from that identity of sustainable food only being a trendy,liberal, elitist, yuppy concern.

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  22. Maybe what people object to is being made subjects of laws with regard to what they consider to be personal choices. Maybe that’s the cultural issue, eh?
    A lot of people eat food that isn’t very healthy — and a lot of them are on whatever side of a political spectrum you may be interested in. Unless you’re saying that all communists eat only free-range-cruelty-free-organic fern tips and all monarchists eat nothing but canned fat with sugar sauce? Seems to me that a lot of people who voted for Obama eat a lot of unhealthy food. I sprout seeds, make my own 100% whole grain breads, do lacto-fermentation of vegetables, eat sustainable small fish (sardines, mackerel), and loads of leafy green cruciferous vegetables, so according to your thesis I must be of the same political persuasion as you are, right? Uhm… maybe you shouldn’t bet any scared money on that.
    I encourage people to eat healthy food and save a lot of money while doing so. I assert that eating healthy is cheaper than eating unhealthy. I buy organic chickens and wheat berries. I advocate for healthy eating. What I do NOT advocate for is making it illegal for people to choose to live differently from how I live.