Fast food may provide short-term value to consumers because of its convenience and taste appeal, but the long-term costs of regular and frequent fast food consumption appear to be high, especially for children. Although fast food has been linked to childhood obesity and low academic performance, some 44 percent of Americans of all ages report eating it at least once per week.
A recent study led by Kelly M. Purtell of Ohio State University (OSU), and published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics, linked fast food consumption to academic performance. The research team analyzed data from a longitudinal study to correlate high consumption of fast food with low test scores. Students who reported consuming fast food, either daily or four to six times a week, in fifth grade scored 20 percent lower on math, reading, and science tests by the time they got to the eighth grade than students who reported that they did not eat fast food.
While more research on nutrition’s effects on academic performance will no doubt be conducted as a result of the OSU study, nutritional analyses have long shown that many of the food items available at the drive-through window lack basic nutrients and provide excesses of others, creating imbalances that are likely to affect cognitive development in consumers over time. Ongoing research linking fast food to obesity contributes to a vast and growing body of knowledge on the subject of human nutrition.
However, research from areas of inquiry other than nutrition may be able to shed a different light on fast food consumption patterns. As a study published in the Journal for Population Health Management pointed out, it is the middle class rather than low-income families, which tends to be the main consumer of fast food, ostensibly because it is not only designed for taste appeal with its extraordinarily high salt, sugar, and fat content, but because it is convenient.
In spite of the voluminous, readily available, and relatively reliable information pointing to the detrimental effects of fast food on human health, the short-term value of convenience appears to trump the long-term costs of health consequences. In 2001, a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics not only identified convenience as a distinguishing characteristic in the growth of demand for fast food but concluded that the main driver in the growth of the industry is the demand for convenience. An important component of convenience is the ease of access to the product. In other words, consumers like fast food because it is so easily accessible: They do not need to travel far to obtain a relatively inexpensive full meal.
Considering the seemingly impossible time constraints that are often imposed upon a typical middle class family’s daily schedule, the fast part of fast food is logically appealing. Not only is a full meal speedily and readily available, but the product is consistent and therefore predictable. The idea that convenience makes the lives of busy families run more smoothly becomes simple to understand in the context of Western middle-class existence. In fact, nearly one-third of adults are identified as “convenience consumers,” by the market research firms serving the restaurant industry.
It is interesting to note that convenience can trump information and knowledge in areas of life beyond nutrition and health. Cyber security provides one example of the high value of convenience. An online Internet security survey conducted by Symantec in 2011 found that many users continued to conduct unsafe transactions over the Internet even if they were aware of danger in doing so. After the survey was published, technology writers pointed to feelings of exhaustion or overwhelm created by the number of online security precautions as a way of explaining users’ complete disregard for security measures. This phenomenon within the world of cyber security seems similar to the behavior of an educated middle class that continues to consume an unhealthy diet even when the information available would caution against it.
Clearly, alternative options are needed for filling the consumer’s need for convenience with better nutrition. One example of how the convenience supplied by fast food can be combined with healthier, more nutritious, offerings is the Australian franchise Oliver’s Real Food. Another example is U.S.-based Chipotle Mexican Grill. The popularity and success of these two franchises seems to prove that the general public is more than capable of making and enjoying healthy food choices, as long as those choices are convenient.
Franchises such as Oliver’s and Chipotle represent a healthy direction for the future of fast, convenient, food. By balancing the short-term value of convenience against the long-term costs of health improvement and maintenance, businesses like Oliver’s and Chipotle can help shift the Western world’s everyday eating habits toward good health by making better nutrition more convenient.
Opinion by Lane Therrell
Medical News Today
The Simple Dollar
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Nation’s Restaurant News
Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics
Oliver’s Real Food
Chipotle Mexican Grill