Why eating junk food should not be celebrated as progress

Wednesday March 18 2020

In some parts of Europe, especially the former Soviet bloc countries, American junk-food chains are highly coveted. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


It befuddles me why we exalt over American vices and turn them into “our” virtues. One such case involves so-called fast food, which is actually a euphemism for junk food. In my global travels, I’ve often found that the opening of an American fast-food chain in Asia, Africa or Latin America is regarded is a sign of “development” and “progress”.

In some parts of Europe, especially the former Soviet bloc countries, American junk-food chains are highly coveted. Somehow, junk food is chic and hip.

It’s unclear how junk-food mania enveloped the globe, but like most things American, many other cultures now deem it sexy. Let’s interrogate how this modern American abomination became a global craze.


First, let me disclose why — among many important reasons — I am devoting a column to an issue that’s not a part of public discourse in Kenya.

A couple of years ago, Burger King, the quintessential American fast-food joint, decided to switch to using chickens that aren’t raised without antibiotics considered “critically important” to human medicine.

Burger King didn’t say it would eliminate all meat and dairy produced with antibiotics, but only those produced with “critically important” antibiotics to human medicine. Translation — meat and poultry at Burger King still has antibiotics.

But Burger King would only apply the new policy to the United States and Canada. Kenyans — and other lesser humans — would continue to consume antibiotics-laden food.

Why is the reduction, and elimination, of food produced using antibiotics necessary to human medicine important?


Get this first — about 70 per cent of all antibiotics that are key to fighting human infections as well as ensuring the safety of invasive procedures such as surgeries, are used by farmers in the raising — and production — of livestock, dairy and poultry.

Which means we are ingesting important antibiotics every time we eat eggs, beef and chicken, or drink milk.

Health experts, including the world-leading Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, United States, believe that the overuse of these antibiotics is contributing to drug-resistant “super-bugs”. These are bacteria that antibiotics are powerless to treat. Imagine that — a plague isn’t far off in our future.

In the US alone, two million people are infected by drug-resistant bacteria and 23,000 die. If that’s the case in America — the most medically advanced nation on earth — only God knows how many Kenyans are victimised by eating such foods.

Burger King isn’t alone in creating what’s essentially a public health emergency. Other American global fast-food chains are guilty as well.


A study produced by the most reputable food safety advocacy organisations — Center for Food Safety, Consumer Reports, Food Animal Concerns Trust, US PIRG Education Fund, Friends of the Earth, and Natural Resources Defense Council — fittingly gave 22 of the top 25 burger chains, including Burger King, McDonald’s, Five Guys, and White Castle — a failing “F” grade.

Unsurprisingly, only two chains — Shake Shack and BurgerFi — received an “A” from the consumer protection watchdogs. Wendy’s, another ubiquitous American fast-food chain, received “D-”. This is an indictment not only of Burger King but virtually the entire fast-food industry.

It is clear corporate responsibility isn’t the strong suit of the fast-food industry. It’s decided in defiance of irrefutable science to put profits before people.

The data isn’t even disputable. Fast food has been directly linked to colorectal cancer, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and depression, a leading cause of suicide. Most fast foods, whose recipes are made purposely addictive, tend to be high in saturated fat, sugar, salt and calories. This is a recipe for an early death.

Fast food wasn’t initially invented to be glamorous or faddish. It arose with the advent of the humongous working and middle classes in the United States who toiled for long hours and either didn’t have enough time to cook or were too exhausted after work or pressed between shifts to cook.


It was “food on the go”. It’s mass-produced commercialised pre-cooked food. The hamburger with fries, the pizza slice, or a piece of chicken are signature for fast food. It’s usually greasy, fatty, loaded with cabs and taken with the abominable sugar-loaded pop soda. It’s an injection of cholesterol. It beats me how this vice is now a virtue in places like Kenya, where all cancers are now an epidemic.

The problem with all junk — read trash — foods is that they are addictive, especially if you grow up with it. Children reared on it crave it. It’s like a drug — cocaine or other life-destroying chemicals. Once you are hooked, you are hooked. Obesity soon follows.

Then all the problems that flow from being obese. We euphemistically call those problems “lifestyle diseases”. But the truth is that they are killer diseases.

If Burger King and other chains won’t clean their act, then Kenyans need to unhook their children from their fast foods. Don’t ingest poison, or feed it to your child, and then wonder why you, or they, are prematurely dying.

Makau Mutua is a distinguished professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and chairman of KHRC. @makaumutua.