There may be no American institution more polarizing than fast food. Whether it’s wages, health, the environment or those Colonel Sanders ads, the problems associated with the all-American meal inspire lots of detractors. But for many millions, places like McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Steak ’n Shake generate fierce loyalty for their convenience, value, ritual, shock-and-awe menu items and community; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2018 that more than one-third of Americans eat fast food on any given day. As the summer season of road trips and Frosties enters full swing, here are five myths about fast food.
For decades, the world of inexpensive, quick-service food has been associated with the American underclass. The conventional wisdom, Mark Bittman wrote in the New York Times back in 2011, is that “junk food is cheaper when measured by the calorie, and that this makes fast food essential for the poor because they need cheap calories.” In a nod to this perception, the Los Angeles City Council in 2008 banned new fast-food restaurants in South Los Angeles, one of the poorest sections of the city, in an effort to promote healthier eating.
But fast food’s appeal crosses all demographic lines, from income to age to ethnicity. Studies and surveys show that fast food is most popular among the upper-middle income brackets. “Wealthier Americans — those earning $75,000 a year or more — are more likely to eat it at least weekly (51%) than are lower-income groups,” a 2013 Gallup survey found. “Those earning the least actually are the least likely to eat fast food weekly — 39% of Americans earning less than $20,000 a year do so.” These findings were reinforced in a similar CDC study released in 2018, which showed that a higher percentage of diners who live above the poverty line eat fast food on a given day than those below it.
One trend to emerge from the backlash against fast food has been fast-casual restaurants, marketed as having healthier food with better-quality ingredients — still served quickly. For several years, before a spate of foodborne-illness outbreaks, the sainted poster child for fast-casual eateries was Chipotle, which promised “food with integrity” and GMO-free ingredients. This halo effect extended across the industry. “The concept of fast casual is ‘fresh food fast,’ and establishments that fit the bill, including Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Pei Wei are popping up all over,” wrote one registered dietitian in 2013. “Many of these restaurants serve up freshly prepared dishes, made-in-house, with ingredient lists that read like a recipe from a healthy cookbook.”
While fast-casual darlings cashed in, a few studies dumped sour cream on these misperceptions. In 2015, the New York Times revealed that “the typical order at Chipotle has about 1,070 calories,” more than half the daily calories recommended for most adults. Then, researchers at the University of South Carolina compared entrees at more than 60 fast-food and fast-casual restaurants and found that the fast-casual offerings averaged 200 calories more than fast food. Even regular restaurants aren’t appreciably healthier than fast-food joints: A comprehensive 2015 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that, while dining out at full-service restaurants yields more nutrients than eating fast food, it also translates to about the same amount of calories, along with more sodium and cholesterol.
In 1992, a 79-year-old retiree named Stella Liebeck spilled a scalding cup of McDonald’s coffee on herself while sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car. After a New Mexico jury awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, the episode became an international sensation. In news broadcasts, for example, it was reported that Liebeck had spilled while carelessly driving down the road. She was mocked as craven, greedy and an unpatriotic abuser of the legal system . “Now she claims she broke her nose on the sneeze guard at the Sizzler bending over looking at the chickpeas,” Jay Leno yukked on “The Tonight Show.”
But Liebeck had truly suffered — 16 percent of her body was burned, including 6 percent with third-degree burns, and her injuries required multiple skin grafts and an eight-day hospital stay. Liebeck filed a claim for $20,000 to cover her medical bills and took McDonald’s to court only after the company offered her just $800. The huge award was the jury’s decision — the equivalent of two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee sales at the time — and was later heavily reduced by a judge. Finally, the sides settled out of court, reportedly for less than half a million dollars.
In his best-selling 2006 book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan singled out obesity as one of the unaccounted costs in “the ninety-cent price of a fast-food hamburger.” In the 2004 documentary “Super Size Me,” Morgan Spurlock made the connection, too. The link has carried over into regulations. In 2008, New York became the first city to mandate calorie counts on the menus of chain restaurants, and in 2010, a federal calorie-count law followed as part of the Affordable Care Act.
But the difference between correlation and causation makes the picture more complicated. For example, two new major studies have linked ultra-processed food — the factory-produced, additive-heavy, industrialized items often found in boxes of nuggets and soda fountains — to premature death and cardiovascular disease. And yet the researchers could empirically connect obesity only to the human tendency to overeat. “The simple fact that fast food restaurants and obesity have both increased over time is insufficient proof of this link, as are studies that rely on differences in fast food consumption across individuals, since people who eat more fast food may be prone to other behaviors that affect obesity,” the National Bureau of Economic Research notes .
No one should be claiming that fast food is the key to long life, but obesity’s causes can’t be reduced to drive-throughs or Happy Meals. Factors like exercise, smoking rates, air quality, genetics and access to health care also come into play. As the dangers of obesity continue to reveal themselves in chronic illnesses and fatal diseases, focusing on just one possible cause has the potential to obscure bigger problems.
There was a time, mostly between the 1960s and 1980s, when fast-food employees were teenagers working after school and during summers for pocket money. The cultural trope reached Hollywood in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Good Burger.” In recent years, this perception has morphed into an industry talking point. When arguing against wage increases, Andrew Moesel, then a lobbyist for the New York State Restaurant Association, suggested in 2013 that the industry’s “low-wage jobs, entry-level jobs for young people” function as launchpads “for people to go on and live the American Dream.”
Yet according to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics , the median age of a fast-food worker is just over 26 years old. Since 2000, more teenagers have opted out of work altogether, with the workforce participation rate among 16-to-19-year-olds dropping from just over 50 percent to 34 percent . This has created an opening for more seniors and foreign-born workers to step into the breach. In fact, McDonald’s recently joined companies like Google and Macy’s in partnering with AARP to recruit retirees and older employees.