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The McDonaldization of Food

Wendell Berry observed over a quarter century ago that “People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.” A prescient statement that is perhaps more true today than ever before. But how did we get here, considering the fact that since the dawn of Medicine until fairly recently, dietetics was a cornerstone of medical therapy?

In Ancient China, physicians were paid when their patients were well and received no payment if they fell ill. Among the 5 Ancient Chinese branches of Medicine; acupuncture (including surgery, although this is not in practice today), herbal medicine, massage and bone setting, martial and meditative arts, and dietary therapy, dietary therapy was considered the highest form of medicine. The same held true in Ancient Greece.

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the beginning of the Anthropocene Age, there were irrevocable changes to food and food pathways. With large cities as the focal point of civilization and progress, food was transported and preserved in new and novel ways. However, following World War II there was a dramatic and untoward development. America saw the emergence of a convenience culture with respect to food.

Preparing home cooked meals after acquiring local, fresh groceries was portrayed as drudgery and an imposition on leisure time. Safe, fast, and reproducible food became the norm. Since reproducible food requires reproducible ingredients; the polar opposite of locally grown food that reflects – like a great wine – its local terroir, additives and processing became the norm. This preparation, service, and distribution exemplified by the Fast Food giant McDonalds dominated the culinary scene. In the 1970s with the advent of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a cheap alternative to the then still relatively expensive sugar, refined carbohydrates and hyperpalatable ultra-processed foods began to dominate the marketplace. This has progressed on our current timeline to where Big Snack, Big Soda, and Big (Fast) Food generate revenues in excess of many countries’ GDP. McDonalds alone feeds 1% of the world’s population every day and if it were a country, in terms of revenues, McDonald’s would be 103rd (out of 195) in the world.

As a result of a perfect storm of addictive, industrially manufactured comestibles combined with considerable economic and political clout, over 70% of the food the average American eats every day consists of processed and ultra-processed offerings. The governmental guidelines produced over the last half century, based on antiquated approaches, poor science, and unfounded supposition, have failed to address the root causes of our current health crisis. We are what we eat.