Towards healthy fast food

Fast food is here to stay but the task now should be to push the manufacturers towards providing more healthy alternatives.

The NDA government must be congratulated for taking strict action against multinational food giant Nestle for selling Maggi noodles containing harmful amounts of lead and other chemicals. While this step is welcome, there is a need to address the much bigger problem looming on the horizon.

Globally, it has been established that consumption of fast food is leading to obesity. A study done for the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that increased consumption of fast food led to people becoming overweight. The body-mass index (BMI) measures the weight of a person in relation to his or her height. A BMI above 25 is considered overweight. The study found that the BMI increased from 25.8 to 26.4 in the United States as the average number of fast food consumption increased from 26 to 32 BMI per year.

These problems notwithstanding, there are benefits of fast food. Time taken to prepare these is a fraction of cooking a meal in the home kitchen. Many families have both parents working. They do not have the leisure of cooking a meal. They can use the time saved for other activities like sports or watching TV.

These activities help in family bonding as much as enjoying a home cooked meal. In fact, bonding can be more with fast food. The mother can sit with the children and play, instead of tending the stove in the kitchen. Moreover, cooking is often drudgery. I cook my meals often. Sometimes I would rather eat some biscuits than cook. Fast food, therefore, liberates us from the drudgery of the kitchen.

The negative of fast food is health, while the positive is availability of cheaper food and removal of drudgery of the kitchen. It is undesirable to ban fast food given these benefits. The way forward is to manage the negatives. The WHO has suggested three policies to manage these: The first policy is to rework the tax regime to make whole grains and fruits and vegetables cheaper and fast food more expensive. Subsidies may be provided to grow fruit and vegetables.

The government can make a chain of subsidised cold storages dedicated to fruits and vegetables to bring down their prices in the market. On the other hand, fast food can be taxed at a higher rate. Companies producing food with ingredients that are genetically modified, and use excessive amounts of fertilisers, pesticides, chemicals and antibiotics can be subjected to higher rates of taxes. These measures will raise the cost of fast food and make it economic for families to use more healthy food. The time spent in cooking will be compensated by economic savings in buying cheaper vegetables.

The second policy suggested by WHO is tighter regulation of the advertising of fast food and soft drinks, especially to children. A study in Taiwan found that TV viewing hours and fast food consumption are correlated. Large number of hours spent watching TV contributes to children’s increased risk of being overweight. A study from the United States concluded that ban on advertisements of fast food would reduce the number of overweight adolescents by 14 per cent.

Fast food symbols
A study in Canada found that exposure to fast food symbols not only influences eating habits but also percolates into general behaviour. Such exposure increases preferences for time-saving products, reduces people’s willingness to save and leads them to prefer immediate gain over greater future return, ultimately harming their economic interest. The government should make a law classifying packaged food in “healthy” and “not healthy” categories. Advertisements for “not healthy” packaged food should be banned just as advertisements for tobacco and alcohol have been banned.

The third policy suggested by WHO is of more detailed and informative labelling. Consumers often do not know about the negative health consequences of fast food. The packaged food manufacturers are already required to indicate the ingredients used in making the packaged food. But no information is provided as to whether the ingredients used are healthy or not. It must be made mandatory for manufacturers to indicate how the ingredients used in the product compare with healthy ingredients. Also a warning similar to “Smoking is injurious to your health,” may be required to be printed on all such packaged food.

The purpose of these steps is not to throw fast food out of the market because that will prevent us from benefiting from low costs and time savings. The objective is to educate the public about the negative health impacts and exert pressure upon the fast food companies to provide healthier fast food. “Fast vegetables with whole grain bread” would be healthy while “Fast pizza” would be unhealthy.

The government, therefore, can launch an advertisement campaign educating people about the negative health consequences of fast food. This will encourage fast food manufacturers to provide more healthy alternatives. The sales of McDonalds fell by 23 per cent in the first quarter of 2015 as Americans pursued more healthy options according to the US News & World Report.

A fast food chain named Chiptole has been growing steadily in the United States while the mainstream chains are going downhill. This chain serves vegetables aplenty. Fast food is here to stay because they are cheaper and they liberate us from drudgery of the kitchen. The task, however, is to push the manufacturers towards providing more healthy alternatives.
(The writer was Professor of Economics, IIM-Bangalore)

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