How fast food uses the illusion of choice to feed Americans junk

Another option.
Another option.
Image: REUTERS / Joe Skipper
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Fast food restaurant chains are thriving on an American illusion.

Some of the top brands have enjoyed years of sales growth selling burgers, French fries, soda, and fried chicken to a nation grappling with a decades-long rise in rates of obesity and the deadly diseases that come with it.

When confronted with questions about corporate responsibility and whether it is complicit in an ongoing national health crisis, fast food has repeated the same talking point used by much of the American food industry. The soda industry uses it to argue against levies on its sugary beverages. The restaurant lobby used it when New York City wanted to put a cap on soda sizes. The egg lobby has used it repeatedly in the debate over transitioning from caged-hen eggs to cage-free.

It’s a matter of choice, they say. Consumers deserve choice.

Look no further than McDonald’s—the iconic American company that has served up burgers and fries to hungry patrons since 1955 .

“Our job is to provide convenience,” said Cindy Goody, the top nutritionist at McDonald’s, in a recent interview with Quartz. “Something that’s accessible and affordable. That means championing and providing the customer with information about the food for their choices.”

In adopting this strategy, fast food companies have coopted a fundamental American value: freedom. And they’ve gotten really good at using it as justification for selling nutritionally-poor foods to a population that is, on the whole, incredibly unhealthy.

That food reaches a lot of Americans. According to the US Department of Agriculture, about 37% of money spent by US consumers on food goes to eating outside the home. It’s hard to say what percentage of that goes to fast food, but Goody says McDonald’s feeds 25 million Americans a day at its more than 14,000 US locations—or close to 8% of the population.

In other words: McDonald’s feeds a lot people, so the nutritional value of what it serves is inherently important.

The illusion

In some ways, McDonald’s is a good-faith actor in the realm of public health. Even the most strident public health advocates have given the company a nod for being ahead of the curve compared to its rivals. The brand has added four salad options to most of its menu boards (though, notably, each one contains about 70% of the recommended daily value of sodium—as much as a Big Mac). Most of the substantial health changes have been geared toward children.

On the kids’ menu, the narrative of choice doesn’t apply: No one would argue that a child should be responsible for picking carrot sticks over a cookie. So McDonald’s and other restaurants have taken proactive measures to make healthier choices the default on their children’s menus.

“On kids’ meals there has been a gradual progression of adding apples and reducing sizes of fries,” says Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. “McDonald’s was first to take soda off the kids menu, which led to leverage to get others to do the same. Only Subway and McDonald’s have nutritional standards for the kids menu.”

The logic is clear: When the customer isn’t able to make a good choice, fast food restaurants have stepped into help make that choice for them. Which is why fast food restaurants should pay closer attention to the psychology of the choices their adult customers are actually making.

On the face of it, Americans do have the ability to choose between healthy and less healthy options on a fast food menu. But choice in this situation is an illusion.

First, the majority of options available to consumers at most fast food chains simply aren’t good for them. Take the popular Big Mac meal at McDonald’s. Even if you order it with a small soda and a small fry, you’d automatically max out your daily recommended intake of sugar, get three-quarters of your daily sodium, and consume about half of the 2,000 daily calories needed by the average person. And that’s just one of your three squares. You’re set up for failure.

The choice often isn’t between healthy and unhealthy: It’s between small amounts of unhealthy foods and large amounts of unhealthy food. So even when fast food restaurants add a salad or healthier wrap to their menus, the impact is minimal.

Second, the structure of the fast food industry strongly incentivizes those large amounts. Sure, a person can ‘choose’ between an 8 oz. drink and a 40 oz. drink, but when marketing forces push massive drinks at a minimal price, of course a person will pick the best bargain. To expect busy, hungry people to make good nutrition choices in spite of expensive and savvy marketing campaigns is unreasonable, public health advocates and some studies have shown.

By employing the word “choice,” fast food companies and the lobby that represents them are able to scramble the national discussion. As Scientific American pointed out in a roundup of research around the psychology of the US conception of choice, “thinking about our lives in terms of choices may reduce our support for public policies that promote greater equality in society.” In this case, it stymies better health.

The numbers are stark

Close to half of Americans—more than 130 million people—are suffering from obesity, which is linked to a pernicious suite of diseases that includes type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. While there is no single solution for combatting obesity, health officials say one way is to strive to eat a healthful diet. That includes moderating the calories we eat, and how much sugar, sodium, and fats are consumed during meals.

Those figures can be tough to track when a person isn’t preparing their own food—the purest expression of choice over what you get to eat. The question is whether it’s reasonable to expect a busy person to roll through a fast food drive-through line, navigate a menu peppered with “value meals,” and make a healthful decision. And is it reasonable for restaurants give them mostly unhealthy options to choose from?

As food industry postures shift, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for executives at McDonald’s and other leading chain restaurants to stake their reasoning for menu offerings on consumer choice. Some of the biggest companies in the food industry have started dropping their antagonistic posture toward public health initiatives, and corporate America writ large recently committed (paywall) to focusing more on their responsibility to their communities rather than their shareholders.

McDonald’s global same-store sales increased by 4.5% in 2018 over the previous year, according to financial disclosures. That outpaces what’s anticipated for the entire fast food industry, which is charted to see a compounded annual growth rate of 4.2% between now and 2022, according to Zion Market Research.

The industry’s messages are suggesting it might be worth sacrificing some of that growth in favor of customers’ longevity. The recently-launched Portion Balance Coalition—which includes companies such as PepsiCo and Nestlé—is latching on to the idea. It wants to change consumers’ approaches to unhealthy foods sold as bargains (think of a large soda advertised for $1). Millennial parents are an important target: They’re still young enough to change their habits, and maybe pass them along to their children.

The world’s largest food manufacturer, Nestlé, is blunt about its pragmatic commitment to sell healthier foods. “If we want to do well in business, we have to do well for the communities we serve,” the company has said. “We want consumers with us for a long time, and obesity is threatening the longevity of consumers and communities.”

For its part, McDonald’s describes its foray into healthier options as a continuous journey on which it has partnered with health organizations. The company did not address the matter of using the American value of ‘choice’ as justification for what it sells. In a statement, the company says it’s committed to focusing on kids and families.

“That’s where we believe we can have the greatest impact,” the company said.