Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Industrial Imperialism: Exporting the Flavor of America

In Japan, children are taught about healthy eating from early school age, in a unit called shokuiko, or “food education.” Last year it was reported that McDonald’s, home of the Happy Meal, now produces food education materials used in schools in Japan. According to Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, family physician and health blogger, the American fast food giant is hoping that Japanese school children “will associate McDonald's branding of their healthy eating classes, and hence McDonald's as a whole, with healthy eating.”

McDonald’s is selling the values and flavor of the West: America’s most important export. In China, McDonald’s presents its food as being of the highest quality. Given the recent history of food recalls from China due to tainting and corruption, (would you buy organic from China?) it would be ironic, if not for all of the victims who are taken in by the commercial food producers’ claims.

There have always been dangers inherent in food. We must eat or we die, but eating the wrong thing, once, can be a fatal mistake. Worse is when we eat something continuously, sensing no harm, only to find out that the dangers accumulate over time with few or no symptoms. Smoking a cigarette won’t kill you. Smoking a pack a day for ten years won’t even kill you. But we know that cigarettes contain dangerous toxins, and that people who smoke for decades are much more likely to develop certain diseases. Saccharine, Red #5, and other famously toxic food additives didn’t taste like poison to fans of Tab and the old red M&Ms.

Products with known health dangers, like tobacco cigarettes and infant formula, were once far more popular in the US than they are today. In the 1970s, more than half of adults smoked cigarettes. Breastfeeding, once the only choice for feeding infants, came to be regarded as practically unnatural once infant formula became widely available. A new cultural wave of breastfeeding awareness and celebration has been breaking against that corporate front for more than a generation.

Since then, both of these products have been more aggressively marketed in other countries, where the common wisdom had not yet developed against these new dangers. Rising middle classes, like the ones in India and China, want what has been so successfully sold to the middle classes who existed before them. A Big Mac and a Marlboro is the flavor of America. Even infants can suckle at rubber teats full of chemicals, and their mothers convinced that this is better. 

Don’t look down your nose at them: we were convinced to do exactly the same things, here. Look at pictures from the 1970s and be reminded of how, in the course of an American century, cigarette smoking went from uncommon to ubiquitous and back to uncommon again.

Today, a similar war is being pitched against fast food. New York City bans trans fats, and San Francisco bans Happy Meals. Yet, most people still eat fast food in this country, still wash it down with carcinogenic beverages. (Again, are you surprised?) 

They’re clamoring for them, say the multinationals who sell poison, cheap and tasty. The people want caramel color made using ammonia and that causes leukemia. If they didn’t want it, they’d buy something else.

Are you buying it?

Photo credit: nelo_hotsuma