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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.

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