Fast Food

Fast food in the U.S. has grown from a $6-billion-a-year industry in 1970[1] into a corporate juggernaut with a reported $200 billion in annual revenues in 2015.[2] Especially because “meat,” dairy, and eggs are the main ingredients in fast food, the exponential increase in its consumption has engendered a wide range of negative social impacts—including rapidly rising diet-related disease rates, worker exploitation, systemic animal abuse, and environmental degradation.


The fast food industry’s economic clout has not only enabled it to effect a radical shift in the country’s eating patterns (as well as those around the globe), but it has also fundamentally altered the very way that food is produced. The industry’s enormous purchasing power and demand for vast amounts of cheap animal products are among the principal driving forces behind factory farming, as well as the massive government subsidies for staple animal feed crops like corn and soy that sustain it.[3] As a result of the industry’s excessive economic influence, gigantic multinational corporations like McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC make huge profits selling fast food at artificially-reduced prices.

Meanwhile, obscured behind the veneer of fast food companies’ slick multi-billion-dollar marketing campaigns are the true costs to public health, fast food workers, animal welfare, and the environment.

Fast Food and Dietary Diseases 

Volumes of peer-reviewed scientific studies conclusively correlate the consumption of “meat” and other animal products with many of the deadliest medical disorders plaguing humankind today, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.


Children who consume fast food eat more calories overall than those who do not (either regularly or on particular days) because these low-fiber “empty calories” leave people hungry later. One study found that kids who eat fast food consume an average of about 15 percent more calories than those who do not and gain about an extra six pounds per year as a result if they do not burn those excess calories off through exercise. Fast food was also the main food source for 29 to 38 percent of the randomly-chosen subjects in this study, and it typically replaced healthier options like fresh fruits and vegetables in their diets.[4]

Companies deliberately whet children’s appetite for fast food through age-specific advertising campaigns, including television commercials for “Happy Meals” with movie tie-in toys for younger kids and smartphone promotions and online games aimed at teens.[5][6] Given that fast food companies now collectively spend more than $4.5 billion a year on advertising[7] (with at least $1.5 billion of that directly targeting children),[8] it is no surprise that the results of a Yale University study showed kids six to 11 years of age were exposed to 59 percent more Subway ads, 26 percent more McDonald’s ads, and 10 percent more Burger King ads in 2009 than they were in 2007.[9]  In this same study, researchers found that companies even target young consumers by ethnicity, with Black children and teens being exposed to at least 50 percent more fast food advertisements than their white counterparts.[10]

Fast Food in Communities of Color and Low-Income Areas

Research shows that in communities of color and low-income areas, fast food franchises tend to cluster around schools,[11] further extending their marketing outreach to young people.

A similar pattern of fast food concentration is also generally found throughout communities of color and low-income areas, and “One nationwide study found that low-income zip codes have 25 percent fewer chain supermarkets than middle-income zip codes. Compared to predominantly white zip codes, majority African American zip codes have about half the number of supermarkets, and mostly Latino zip codes have about a third as many.” [12]

This information coincides with the results seen in Food Empowerment Project’s report, “Shining a Light on the Valley of Heart’s Delight.” The high density of fast food outlets, as well as liquor and convenience stores in neighborhoods selling cheap, high-calorie foods, often crowds out supermarkets, grocery stores, and farmer’s markets that offer healthy (but often more expensive) dietary options.[13] Similar results can also been seen in Food Empowerment Project’s report “Vallejo: City of Opportunity Lacks Access to Healthy Food” where “Eighty-eight percent of all liquor stores and 71% of all convenience stores in the city of Vallejo are in low-income neighborhoods.”

Blacks, Latinx, and other people of color most likely to live in areas which lack access to healthy foods suffer disproportionately from higher rates of diet-related disorders than whites—and fast food is one of the main causes of this deadly disparity. Residents of these areas typically have a plethora of fast food restaurants to choose from within walking distance of their homes, but the nearest supermarket or grocery store may be miles away, and many low-income individuals do not have access to private transportation and must work two jobs just to make ends meet. Feeding their families fast food is therefore usually quicker, easier, and less expensive than shopping for and preparing home-cooked meals. However, reliance on fast food as a dietary staple (especially over long periods of time) causes poor health from inadequate nutrition.[14]

Fast Food and Globalization

Started in 1948 by two brothers, McDonald’s is arguably the most well-known fast food retailer and a prime example of the spread of Western-style fast food chains to global markets. It is now the largest fast food retailer with a global market value of US$97.7 billion [15], has expanded in more than 100 countries, and has more than 36,000 outlets worldwide.[16]

Between 2011 and 2016, fast food sales grew by 21.5% in the U.S. while worldwide sales surged by 30%.[17] For many emerging markets, Western-style fast food isn’t just about food, “it’s social status.”[18] “People march their sons and daughters to buy KFC and buy pizza and they like to show them what we can afford,” according to University of Ghana lecturer Matilda Laar, who talks about family and consumer sciences.[19]

Unfortunately, the rise in fast food consumption across the globe parallels the rise of diabetes and diet-related disorders as well.[20] According to the World Health Organization, the incidence of diabetes has risen from 108 million people in 1980 to 422 million people in 2014[21] and is projected to increase to 552 million by 2030.[22]

Fast Food Impacts on Workers, Animals, and the Environment 

In addition to harming human health, the fast food industry also has detrimental impacts on:

  • Workers: At any given time, there are about 3.5 million fast food workers in the U.S.[23] They typically work for minimum wage without medical benefits or the right to unionize, and women endure regular sexual harassment and assault, so turnover is extremely high.[24]
  • Animals: Since fast food companies purchase such a large proportion of the “meat,” dairy, and eggs produced by farmers, they are able to exert enormous influence over how animals are raised for food.[25]As a result, factory farms supply the fast food industry’s demand for vast volumes of animal products at the lowest possible cost by crowding animals together to conserve space (often confining them in cages or crates), pumping them full of non-therapeutic antibiotics and artificial growth hormones, amputating body parts to avoid unnatural stress-induced injuries, and slaughtering them at breakneck speeds on mechanized disassembly lines (often while they remain fully conscious). Cows, chickens, and pigs raised to make fast food endure lifelong pain and suffering on factory farms, where they are treated like interchangeable production units.
  • The Environment: According to a landmark report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the livestock sector (and factory farming in particular) is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global the world faces today.”[26]Meanwhile, fast food companies jointly profit more from factory farming than perhaps any other commercial or industrial sector. In addition, millions of acres of forests are clear-cut every year to manufacture fast food packaging, which comprises 49% of litter found on U.S. streets.[27] And, to prevent grease leakage, many fast food companies coat their paper packaging with perfluoroalkyls, which are toxic compounds that harm the environment [28] and human health.[29]

Food for Thought 

It is clear fast food corporations don’t care about anyone—not the workers, not the animals, not the environment, and of course not people’s health. It’s all about making a profit. We would like to tell people not to buy from these fast food giants, but we know that might not always be possible. When there is no choice, it is still possible to make a difference by purchasing a vegan option.


[1] Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Houghton Mifflin: 2001. p. 3.….v=onepage&q&f=false (7/4/11)

[2]  Sena, M. (n.d.) “Fast Food Industry Analysis 2018 – Cost & Trends.” (2/5/18)

[3] Hyman, Mark. “Why Quick, Cheap Food Is Actually More Expensive.” Huffington Post. August 14, 2010. (7/4/11)

[4] Davis, Jeanie Lerche. “Fast Food Creates Fat Kids: Kids Can Gain 6 Pounds a Year From Fast Food.” Web MD Health News. January 5, 2004. (7/4/11)

[5] Barboza, David. “Fast Food Industry Zeroes In On Children.” International Herald Tribune. August 5, 2003. (2/26/17)

[6] Khamsi, Roxanne. “Fast food branding makes children prefer happy meals.” New Scientist. August 6, 2007. (7/4/11)

[7] Kantar Media. Advertising Age, Fast Food Marketing. (October 12, 2015)  (2/5/18)

[8] Smith, Stephen. “Food, fun—and fat: The battle to shrink the waistlines of America’s children focuses increasingly on how food is marketed, including the use if toys as lures.” The Boston Globe. July 19, 2010. (7/4/11)

[9] Melnick, Meredith. “Study: Fast-Food Ads Target Kids with Unhealthy Food, and It Works.” Time. November 8, 2010. (7/4/11)

[10] Brownell, Kelly. “Are Children Prey for Fast Food Companies?” The Atlantic. November 8, 2010. (7/4/11)

[11] Freeman, Andrea. “Fast Food: Oppression through Poor Nutrition.” California Law Review, Vol. 95. Iss. 6 (2007) (3/20/18)

[12] Policy Link. “Equitable Development Toolkit: Access to Healthy Food.” January 2010.  (3/20/18)

[13] Severson, Kim. “Los Angeles Stages a Fast Food Intervention.” Los Angeles Times. August 13, 2008. (7/4/11)

[14] Block, Jason P., et al. “Fast Food, Race/Ethnicity, and Income: A Geographic Analysis.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2004: v27(3), p. 0749-3797.…Fast_Food_RaceEthnicityand_Income.pdf (7/4/11)

[15] Statista. “Most valuable fast food brands worldwide 2017.” (2/5/18)

[16] United States Securities and Exchange Commission Form 10-K: McDonald’s Corporation. December 31, 2016. (3/21/18)

[17] Searcey, D., & Richtel, M. “Obesity Was Rising as Ghana Embraced Fast Food. Then Came KFC.

[18] Searcey, D., & Richtel, M. “Obesity Was Rising as Ghana Embraced Fast Food. Then Came KFC.

[19] Searcey, D., & Richtel, M. “Obesity Was Rising as Ghana Embraced Fast Food. Then Came KFC.

[20] Pan, A., Malik, V., Hu, F. B. “Exporting Diabetes to Asia: The Impact of Western-Style Fast Food.” (2/5/18)

[21] World Health Organization: Media Centre. Diabetes. November 2017. (2/5/18)

[22] Pan, A., Malik, V., Hu, F. B. “Exporting Diabetes to Asia: The Impact of Western-Style Fast Food.” (2/5/18)

[23] Statista. “Number of employees in the United States fast food industry from 2004 to 2018.” (3/22/18)

[24] Judkis, M. & Heil, E. “Rape in the storage room. Groping at the bar. Why is the restaurant industry so terrible for women?” The Washington Post. November 17, 2017. (3/29/18)

[25] Mason, Caleb. “The Fast Food Jungle.” In These Times. April 30, 2001. (7/4/11)

[26] “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options.” The United Nations: Food and Agriculture Organization. 2006. (7/4/11)

[27] Schwartz, A. “How Fast Food Chains Could Prevent Water Pollution.” (June 22, 2011)

[28] “Public Health Statement for Perfluoroalkyls.” Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry. May 2009. (7/4/11)

[29] Hawthorne, Michael. “Potentially dangerous chemicals found in fast-food wrappers, researchers say.” Chicago Tribune. February 1, 2017. (2/26/17)

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