By Doug Grunther, CONTRIBUTING WRITER and Derek Osenenko, EXECUTIVE EDITOR
While America’s fast-food industry may be hitting an earnings ceiling, it maintains its enormous grip on American eating habits and, despite the fast-emerging healthy-fast-food trend, continues to feed devastating health problems affecting growing segments of American society.
Indeed, healthy alternatives to fast, cheap processed food are enjoying high-visibility campaigns designed to expand market share among mainstay fast-food chains.
That makes good public-service sense. After all, fast food is increasingly tied to a rich portfolio of growing health concerns — diseases and medical conditions directly tied to eating industrialized food.
The last decade has seen have seen the emergence of the casual healthy fast-food phenomenon, a trend line first identified by Gerald Celente in the Trends Journal and later in his book “Trends 2000.”
In recent years, the Trends Research Institute forecast that the move toward healthier “clean foods,” as Celente first termed the movement, would gain steam in the early years of this new century. It has done just that. And the growth curve for fast-casual healthy food is, as forecast, showing steady growth.
But just how significant is the growing business of healthy fast food?
How healthy is the new chains’ food — and healthy alternative products established chains are creating — that Americans are consuming more and more often?
Can the evolving healthy-food industry steal significant market share from the fast-food giants?
And will these new players and new healthy alternatives offered by the bigs make America healthier?
THE BIOLOGICAL, ECONOMIC LURE OF CRAP FOOD
Americans eat on the run. Give it to ’em fast. Give ’em a quick jolt of salt, sugar, chemical enhancement, food dyes, empty carbs and lusty hunks of hormone-injected factory-farmed meat. Give ’em deep-fried with plenty of chemical enhancements.
Thus, despite healthier food alternatives’ noticeable gains among on-the-run families and individuals balancing work and family time restraints, the long-term trend of overdosing on fast food virtually ensures that millions of Americans will suffer obesity, diabetes, intestinal disorders and heart disease, along with nutrient-deprived dysfunctional brains.
Fast-food’s emergence during the last 50-plus years has evolved into a monolithic industry and pervasive cornerstone of the American lifestyle, controlling the minds and bodies of tens of millions of Americans.
Giant fast-food chains get into our heads constantly. That’s particularly true among children. Kids see, on average, four fast-food ads per day. And, approximately one of every three American children and adolescents ages 2–19 consume burgers, fries and fast-food favorites daily, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And it’s not only effective marketing luring you to fast food. It’s biological, too.
Hiring the most skillful advertising firms in the country, fast-food companies prey on the brain’s genetic thirst for salt, sugar and fat.
Science confirms that consuming that trio triggers neurons in the brain’s opioid circuit. That delivers a tasty, rewarding experience, albeit a momentary sensation. But to sustain the reward, you need to eat more of the Killer Three, or do so in larger doses.
Addictive ingredients? You bet.
All three, especially sugar, bear trademarks of addictive reactions — craving, binging and withdrawal. The addictive qualities are both psychological and physiological.
Like cocaine, opioids and other powerful drugs, the more processed food we consume, the more we crave.
A MARKETER’S DREAM
Imagine if high-priced marketers sold cocaine. What ills would consume the nation?
Apply that analogy to fast food. Decades of incessant fast-food marketing across print, digital and broadcast outlets, promoting this primal, addictive desire, has left tens of millions of Americans overweight, sick and brain-hampered.
“About half the deaths from obesity, heart disease and diabetes come from an overdose of fast foods,” according to a Journal of the American Medical Association report on American health this year.
And it’s not just hamburger giants sustaining this killer fast-food craze.
Want to guess the most popular fast-food chain in the US?
Not McDonald’s, Burger King or Wendy’s.
Eating less beef and grilling instead of deep frying are healthy changes.
But Chick-fil-A’s offering of low-calorie, low-carb, low-fat meals, which it advertises as “fresh quality ingredients” and “great ideas for healthy living,” is anything but.
Chick-fil-A is “…a highly processed product that falls short on many nutrients, including fiber, vitamins and minerals,” according to a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics quoted in a CBS report.
“Highly processed” is a nice way of saying “chemical nightmare.”
A Chick-fil-A spicy chicken sandwich deluxe has 84 ingredients. Most are unhealthy. Many aren’t even foods: monosodium glutamate, chemical dyes, artificial colors, multiple forms of artificial sugars, hydrogenated oils and dimethylpolysiloxane (an anti-foam chemical the US Food and Drug Administration allows to be preserved with ingredients that don’t have to be listed on the label, including formaldehyde. And you can find dimethylpolysiloxane in Silly Putty).
LOWER OBESITY RATES? UM, NO
Even recent reports that seem to indicate the US is doing better show, upon closer inspection, that most Americans remain overweight and a frightening number are obese. “Adult obesity rates are showing signs of leveling off, but progress could be eroded if programs are cut and policies are weakened,” according to the 14th annual “State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America” report by the nonprofit Trust For America’s Health.
But even the report that obesity rates are showing signs of leveling off belies the point that adult obesity rates this year exceeded 25 percent of people in virtually all 50 states. As of 2000, no state had an obesity rate above 25 percent.
DEATH BY SODA
And then there’s the devastating effect of sugar-laden sodas on the nation’s health.
A can of soda contains about 12 teaspoons of sugar, which skyrockets blood sugar and causes insulin reactions. Then consider that the average American drinks about 50 gallons of soda a year.
You might remember that popular Coca-Cola ad showing a choir of sweet-looking multi-national teenagers singing the jingle, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” More accurate lyrics would be “I’d like to teach the world to suffer from sugar-addicted diseases.”
The stark fact is that an American is much more likely to suffer bodily harm from drinking 50 gallons of soda a year than from a terrorist attack or Russian hacking.
BIGS SWEET ON SUGAR
And yet, despite government reports calling for reduced sugar use, the big corporations profiting from it continue to control most of the dialogue in this country.
A good example was reported by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: “A recently released email conversation between two industry groups and two former Coca-Cola company executives reveals that Big Soda may be taking a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook… The emails reveal an intent to cast doubt on the science, influence reporters, use front groups to undermine concerns about the harmful effects of sugary drinks and head off dietary guidelines raising such concerns and regulations.”
The email discussion followed the release of US dietary guidelines recommending that Americans reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages.
If you think switching to diet sodas, as the bigs would lead you to believe, is a healthy step, think again.
The scientific journal Stroke showed a correlation between drinking diet soda and stroke and dementia. People who drank at least one diet soda a day were three times as likely to have a stroke or develop dementia compared to those avoiding the beverages.
WHY FAST FOOD IS CHEAP
Does it make sense that raising a huge animal like a cow, feeding it huge amounts of food and water, killing it, processing it and getting it to the plate as a hamburger costs the consumer far less than a plate of organic vegetables?
The answer: Government subsidies.
Every year, billions of tax dollars are herded by a Congress controlled by lobbyists of industrial-sized agribusinesses and junk-food manufacturers. The money artificially manipulates the price of fast-food burgers, chickens and fries. And these same politicians and lobbyists have the audacity to talk about a “free” market.
Between 1995 and 2010, the government doled out $170 billion in agricultural subsidies to finance production of unhealthy foods. While many of these foods are not inherently unhealthy, only a small percentage are eaten as is. Most are used as feed for livestock, turned into bio fuels or converted to cheap products and additives like corn sweeteners, industrial oils, processed meats and refined carbohydrates.
While the government recommends eating more fruits and vegetables, it continues to subsidize ingredients for fast foods and junk foods proven to lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and intestinal dysfunction.
While smaller, independent farms represent three-quarters of the country’s cropland, they receive only about 14 percent of government subsidies. Large agribusinesses that specialize in growing major commodity crops used to generate industrialized fast food represent only 7 percent of the cropland, yet receive about half of all subsidies.
“The subsidies damage our country’s health and increase the medical costs that will ultimately need to be paid to treat the effects of the obesity epidemic,” according to the US Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit consumer-advocacy group. “Taxpayers are paying for the privilege of making our country sick.”
FAST FOOD GOES GLOBAL
Not content to substantially harm the health of US citizens in the name of financial profit, American fast-food marketing is having a devastating effect on foreign cultures as well.
From Mexico to the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, to the emerging empire of China, obesity is increasing.
According to a United Nations report on global nutrition:
• Mexico’s importing of high fructose corn syrup from the US was up 1,200 percent from 1996 to 2012.
• In Qatar, fast foods have replaced home-cooked meals, resulting in 45 percent of Qatar adults and 40 percent of school children being obese.
“Rising obesity around the world is a direct correlation with fast food,” the Reuters news service reported. “For example, McDonald’s now has 18,710 international restaurants. In China, Kentucky Fried Chicken boasted 4,260 locations. China now consumes twice as much meat as the US, a whopping 71 million tons a year.”
McDonald’s is expanding in China at the rate of 10 new restaurants per week. Years of research make a clear connection between consumption of a Western fast-food diet and chronic disease. To satisfy this craving for meat, corporate interests are continuing to destroy the Rain Forest and over 50 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture, according to a report by the Worldwatch Institute.
HEALTHIER FAST FOODS HERE, BUT…?
A recent food survey conducted by the Pew Research Center states, “…sparked by thinking from popular food journalists such as Michael Poland, Mark Bittman and documentaries such as Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me,” Americans’ thinking about food has shifted dramatically. Concerns about obesity, food allergies and other health effects of food are fueling a new level of scrutiny of chemicals and additives in foods… consumption of sugary sodas has dropped to a 30-year low while sales of bottled and flavored water rose dramatically… America’s love affair with fast-food chains in on the wane, with ‘fast casual’ brands offering convenient options which focus on natural, fresh ingredients gaining favor.”
One key trend starting to bite at the heels of fast-food toxicity is the rapidly growing “fast casual” business sector. It includes successful franchises such as Panera, Chipotle and Boston Market. They combine casual dining and fast-food convenience while responding to consumer demand for more organic options, more vegetables and less unhealthy chemicals.
Fast casual’s niche is between traditional full-service restaurants and fast-food establishments in every town and on every highway across the country. It responds to Americans’ need to eat on the run. Fast casual is ordered at a counter; no table service is offered. But the atmosphere is more inviting, and a key trend is preparing the food on site with many local ingredients, eschewing assembly-line, mass-produced items at chains like McDonald’s.
These healthier components are big business. Last year, fast-casual restaurants performed better than any other food-service segment, with $40 billion in profits and sales among top operators up 8.4 percent.
According to QSR Magazine, covering the quick-service restaurant industry, “Fast casual concepts are committed to chef-driven menus and/or signature menu items; premium hospitality; a focus on experience rather than value…; local, healthy ingredients; ambitions other than growth and profit; being cornerstones in their community; embracing peers through collaboration; entrepreneurship and innovation; and long-term relationships with stakeholders.”
Market researcher Technavio predicts “the market for fast-casual fare is expected to hit $66.87 billion by 2020, and there are dozens of fast-casual concepts that have opened in recent years that are going to be competing for their share of the market, particularly in regional markets.”
• MOD Pizza, a Seattle-based chain with almost 200 restaurants featuring house-made sauce and organic dough.
• Sweetgreen, one of the hottest fast-casual chains, which lets customers create their own bowls of healthy, locally sustainable ingredients.
• BurgerFi, a popular south-Florida-based chain promoting hormone- and antibiotic-free burgers.
• LYFE Kitchen, a growing chain offering healthy food options under 600 calories.
ORGANIC FOODS IN THE CLOUD
Earlier this year, Amazon surprised the financial world by paying $13.7 billion for Whole Foods, an American supermarket chain exclusively featuring foods without artificial preservatives, colors, flavoring and sweeteners.
Amazon did not buy Whole Foods because the grocer was showing significant profits. In fact, Whole Foods had been looking to sell to a bigger player; its stock has been in a freefall since 2012. And despite piles of hype about Whole Foods and contemporaries such as Trader Joe’s, these healthy grocers command less than 4 percent of the grocery/supermarket market.
Walk through any mainstream grocery store, and the amount of aisle and shelf space for organic or health foods is about the same as the sector’s market share overall: well below 10 percent.
While market share for organic and healthier food options is growing, a key trend for the future is delivery convenience. That’s Amazon’s strength. Whole Foods has been challenged by higher costs of organic and healthier food alternatives, making prices prohibitive for most American consumers.
As an article in The Atlantic points out, “E-commerce is soaring and food-delivery businesses are taking off because human beings are fundamentally lazy and they don’t want to leave the couch to buy stuff… The Whole Foods purchase is a $14 billion bet on the future of food that comes in boxes.”
In fact, the online food market is projected to grow 15 times faster than the rest of the restaurant business through the end of the decade. That means an important trend to monitor is how Amazon’s low-margin economic model, based on its massive online-delivery network, lowers the price for Whole Foods’ healthy, high-quality food.
In addition to the manipulation of the food market by government subsidies mentioned previously, a key reason most organic foods cost more than non-organic foods is because small, responsible farmers are not creating food on a scale large enough to be cost-effective. They have not been connected to a large network with clout.
Now we have the virtual “Cloud” home-delivery trend. It has enormous clout.
It will be interesting to monitor how Amazon’s integration of convenience (sit on your couch and have your artificial-intelligence ally Alexa submit your food-delivery order) and lower prices for traditionally higher-priced healthy foods will affect the consumer food market.
And Amazon, after purchasing Whole Foods, will have competition.
Forbes magazine reports that Walmart, Target and others are betting big on organics. In many ways, Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods is a reaction to Walmart’s entrance into the organic-food sphere beginning in 2006. Walmart’s strategy to sell more than 100 organic products at more than 4,000 US stores has increased the efficiency of organic-food production.
MILLENNIALS IGNITING NEW FOOD CULTURE
Millennials are one cause of the healthier-eating trend. A recent study revealed over 40 percent of millennials have posted photos of their food on social media. They care about what they eat. And when going out, millennials are more likely to graze, i.e., order three or four appetizers or small plates and share them with friends, rather than fill up on a full course, calorie-intensive meal.
In the article “Food Leaders Take Notice: How Millennials Are Changing the Way We Eat,” Forbes reports that “Eating out has increased from 25.9 percent of consumers in 1970 to a current record of 43.5 percent. Reasons include the increase of women in the workforce and millennials’ desire for more authentic experiences, including healthier food choices and more aesthetic environments.”
What hasn’t changed is American life’s warp-speed pace, so home delivery of food and the fast-casual restaurant trend are likely to continue rapid expansion. While the rise in grocery- and meal-delivery services bodes well for a giant corporation like Amazon, millennials can choose from more local, personal services such as Door To Door Organics and Blue Apron, offering high-quality natural or organic foods brought to your door. TJ