Food for Thought: the Spread of Western Fast Food Culture

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Courtesy of Timeline

Countries express their national identity in a variety of ways — be it flags, languages, literature, sports, or architecture, but perhaps the most influential element of a culture is its food.  A nation’s cuisine may be composed of the same ingredients as another’s yet will always continue to retain its distinctiveness; consequently, food acts as a source of patriotism in many parts of the world. The dishes we are raised with define us and our individual customs.  

In today’s more globalized world, however, Western fast food’s swift expansion has chipped away at many culinary traditions. Fast food giants such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds have increasingly inserted their products into once diverse diets across the globe, replacing principle aspects of cultures with Western ideas.

Africa has proven to be fertile ground for this culinary expansionism; from South Africa to Ghana, fried-food restaurants, such as KFC, have found overwhelming success in the sub-Saharan region, and while the advancement of fast food in Africa is a marker for urbanization and economic growth, its cultural repercussions may not be as positive.

Because Ghana is at the peak of a decades-old obesity epidemic, a thriving fast food industry is harmful to the country’s citizens. Aside from the existing health consequences of fast food, fewer nutrition norms and regulations exist in Africa than in the West, so unlike in many Western countries, palm oil is used more liberally, and restaurants are rarely asked to display calorie counts alongside their menus. However, perhaps the most damaging aspect of the spread of fast food is that it has become the staple meal in countries known for their rich, traditional dishes. Throughout Africa, an order of KFC or McDonalds is already becoming a desirable alternative to classic home-cooked meals.

Moreover, this issue is yet another example of Western imperial values, as it displays a society raised to believe that American food, as unhealthy as it might be, is superior to African cuisine, and as such, that American culture is superior to that of Africa’s. People –and countries– across the globe are giving up a piece of their identity, and while that is their decision, it continues perpetuate the dominance of Western nations, continues to demonstrate the lingering effects of colonialism, and continues to remind us that imperialism is still alive and well within many countries.

Influenced by a relentless food industry that values profit over public health, nations around the world are faced with a challenge: how do we now attempt to counter the tide of obesity and culture drain caused by the prevailing and imposing culture of the West?

In an optimistic turn, despite fast food culture’s establishment in non-Western countries, societies have begun the fight to answer this question. Much like Africa, South America has recently turned into a hot market for fast food. But, unlike Africa, the threat of a market saturated with junk food hasn’t been met with deference. After child and adult obesity ballooned, Chile enacted food regulations in 2016 to improve the eating habits of its citizens. The food laws require all products high in sugar, salt, calorie, or saturated fat to sport black stop-sign-shaped stickers that warn of the food’s health concerns. Furthermore, food advertising directed at children has been highly regulated, with junk food advertisements during children’s television programming completely eliminated.

While Chile’s example provides us with hope for the future of the fast food industry, many countries around the world are still suffering from poor nutrition and diminishing culture. As we look forward to the turn of the decade, we must continue the fight to preserve the world’s health and diversity.

 

-Jesse Roy