Expanding waistlines and “healthy” fast food. Some highlights from my MA research.

4Hi everyone! This is my third post on this blog and it took me some time to decide what it will be about – so many equally exciting issues are waiting to be addressed! I actually feel terribly sorry I hadn’t started blogging earlier as an awful lot of interesting stuff went through my brain during the last couple of month and I did not take an effort to put any of that down on paper.  It now seems quite a task to untangle an intricate web of facts, concepts, theories and ideas that have been building up since I started my research and began to explore the subject. So I thought it would be good to first of all provide some background to my current research activities for which we need to go back to 2011, when I completed my first ever independent research project. That was my MA dissertation, which earned me the Best MA Dissertation Prize and a £50 National Book Token (I wish I’d spent it more wisely I have to say). What was more valuable, however, is that the project has sparkled my interest  in issues around food, public nutrition, food industry and so on. This was  the time when Britain was literally screaming (and still is) about ever-rising population obesity rates and its detrimental costs to societal, economic and physical health of the nation – you could hardly find a newspaper with no “obesity” word somewhere in the headlines. What was in stark contrast with that is the ubiquity of fast-food outlets offering all sorts (and sizes!) of cheap, quickly prepared, over-processed, over-fried and over-loaded with fats and sugars foods and a great number of people consuming them inside the venues, outside or on-the-go. I was never tempted to try any of the fast food “delicacies”, but was curious about what makes it so attractive for people even in the light of the mounting evidence of the links between poor diets and deteriorating health? Don’t people quite get the message? So for my MA research I decided to look at how the obesity issue was being framed by national print media as well as how this framing has changed during the last decade. I did a content analysis of a sample of a mix of UK national quality and tabloid newspapers to see what factors were framed as responsible for the national obesity crisis and how the framing has changed since 2010. The results showed that media discussions on obesity have significantly shifted from blaming individuals toward attributing the responsibility for causing and solving the problem to societal factors with the food and restaurant industry receiving the highest number of mentions. So now my attention was diverted to the “culprit”  – the fast food industry.  The first movie I watched on the subject was Spurlock’s Super-Size Me, in which he documented the effects of subjecting himself to a month-long diet in McDonald’s. The experiment (which I thought was quite a masochistic undertaking) revealed detrimental effects of fast food on health and attracted a fair potion of public criticism towards McDonald’s and the fast food industry in general. It has also inspired me to extend my research to include a semiotic analysis of a sample of McDonald’s TV commercials of the last decade – as I was eager to see how the company’s marketing strategy has been changing – if at all – in response to all the negative publicity that has been building up around the Golden Arches.  I spent hours1 watching McDonalds’ TV commercials (thanks to the Creative Club, UK’s largest ad archive) amazed by the striking dissonance between the kind of images they featured, such as  the ones you see on the left and below with imagery and language clearly intended to convey the notions of naturalness, purity, freshness, lightness and healthiness, and the kind of image of  fast food that I had in my mind for all my life, which was more of the one at the top of2 this post. I have never been a fan of the Arches anyway and have not eaten more than one hamburger in my whole life (so the first one was also my last one – and believe me, this IS true), but really this was an eye-opening moment. Has the industry been so succesful in its marketing strategy aimed at creating an “all-around-healthy and so-good-for-you food” image that it managed to convince people they can eat more of it?  So to complement my study, I did a small survey of university students’ perceptions of the fast food industry and its recent health initiatives (like enhancing menu offerings with healthier choices, such as salads – many of which turn out to be higher in calories than a classic hamburger by the way – or promoting active lifestyles in their advertisements). My results showed that  consumers are not so easy to deceive with over 90% of the respondents reporting mistrust toward fast food companies’ communications and over 83% believing that the industry has contributed to the rising population obesity levels.  However, these findings are in a disturbing dissonance with what you see everyday on the city streets – but that is a well-known limitation of self-reported consumer data – we all tend to distort facts (just that tiny little bit which makes us look – and hence, feel – better than we are) we do not particularly like about ourselves. So that was my first first-hand (excuse my tautology) insight into the food realm and I am hopeful this post (however long!) will set the scene for my future writings on the subject.


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