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 more than $170 billion in annual revenues today. [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.

fastfood_content2The fast food industry’s economic clout has not only enabled it to affect a radical shift in the country’s eating patterns, but also fundamentally alter 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 principle 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 McDonalds, 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, diabetes, and obesity. The overall U.S. obesity rate has more than doubled since 1980, with more than two-thirds of adults and about one-fifth of all children now being overweight or obese. [4] Both nutritional researchers and public health agencies implicate fast food as a major contributor to the obesity epidemic, mainly because of its high sugar, fat and calorie content (and low overall nutritional value). [5]

fastfood_content1Children 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. [6]

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. [7] [8] Given that fast food companies now collectively spend over $4 billion a year on advertising [9] (with at least $1.5 billion of that directly targeting children), [10] it is no surprise that kids six to eleven years of age were exposed to 59 percent more Subway ads, 26 percent more McDonalds ads, and 10 percent more Burger King ads in 2009 than they were in 2007. [11] Another study by researchers at Yale University found that companies even target young consumers by ethnicity, with African Americans being exposed to at least 50 percent more fast food advertisements than white children and teens.[12]

Fast Food and the “Obesogenic Environment” 

Research shows that, in low-income areas and communities of color especially, fast food franchises tend to cluster around schools, [13] further extending their marketing outreach to young people. This contributes to an “Obesogenic Environment” [14] in which close proximity to fast foods (often at the expense of access to healthier options) increases their consumption of these products—along with the girth or their waistlines. [15]

A similar pattern of fast food concentration is also generally found throughout low-income areas and communities of color, where there are on average 30 percent fewer supermarkets than in middle- and high-income regions, [16] which coincides with the results found in Food Empowerment’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 these neighborhoods selling cheap high-calorie foods often crowds out supermarkets, grocery stores and farmers markets that offer healthy (but often more expensive) dietary options. [17] This results in the proliferation of “food deserts” where residents have little or no access to fresh produce, whole grains and unprocessed foods.

African-Americans, Latinos and other people of color most likely to live in food deserts suffer disproportionately from higher rates of obesity (and therefore other diet-related disorders) than whites—and fast food is one of the main causes of this deadly disparity. Residents of food deserts 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 dangerously unhealthy weight gain and other physical problems resulting from poor nutrition.[18]

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. They typically work for minimum wage without medical benefits or the right to unionize, so turnover is extremely high. With the agricultural industry ranking as one of the most hazardous industries to work for in the U.S., fast food workers, however, also suffer one of the highest injury rates of any employment sector, and are statistically more likely than police officers to be murdered while working. [19]
  • 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. [20] 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 United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, 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.” [21] Meanwhile, fast food companies jointly profit more from factory farming than perhaps any other commercial or industrial sector.  In addition, millions of acres of forest are clear-cut every year to manufacture fast food packaging, which comprises a very large percentage of litter found on U.S. roadways.[22] In addition, to prevent grease leakage, many fast food companies coat their paper packaging with perfluoroalkyls, which are toxic compounds that harm the environment [23] and human health. [24]

Food For Thought 

It is clear fast food corporations don’t care about anybody-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 making sure to ask for 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] Bernstein, Sharon. “Fast-food industry is quietly defeating Happy Meal bans.” Los Angeles Times. May 18, 2011,0,7236630.story (7/4/11)

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

[4] “Childhood Obesity.” Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. 2008. (7/4/11)

[5] “Research Review: Effects of Eating Out on Nutrition and Body Weight.” Center for Science in the Public Interest. 2008. (7/8/11)

[6] 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)

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

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

[9] Tracy, Ben. “Fast Food Restaurants Not Fighting Child Obesity.” CBS News. November 9, 2010 (7/4/11)

[10] 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)

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

[12] Brownell, Kelly. “Are Children Prey for Fast Food Companies?” The Atlantic. November 8, 2010.

[13] Tester, June. “The Community Food Environment Around Low-Income Children.” Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland. (8/21/17)

[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] Davis, Brennan and Carpenter, Christopher. “Proximity of Fast-Food Restaurants to Schools and Adolescent Obesity.” American Journal of Public Health. March 2009, v99(3), p. 505-510. (7/4/11)

[16] Tester, June. “The Community Food Environment Around Low-Income Children.” Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland. (8/21/17)

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

[18] 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)

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

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

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

[22] “Litter in America, Key Findings: Sources of Litter.” Keep America Beautiful. 2009. (2/26/17)

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

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

Upcoming Events

<< Apr 2018 >>
26 27 28 29 30 31 1
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 1 2 3 4 5 6

See all events

Take our chocolate list with you

Food Empowerment Project's Chocolate List is available as a free app for your smart phone (or see our chocolate list webpage).

Take a moment to download the app:

Get it on Google Play Download_on_the_App_Store_Badge_US-UK_135x40_0824