R&D Darlings
April 14th, 2010

For the past few weeks I’ve spent my Saturday mornings curled up watching the prior evening’s episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.  Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve probably heard about it:  Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef and nutrition activist, has taken on Huntington, WV as the starting point for the food revolution he hopes to start in America.  Through PR events, publicity stunts, and old fashioned cooking he is endeavoring to elicit a change in the way Huntington’s citizens make decisions about food.

It’s a compelling challenge, and a worthy one, I believe.  Without trifling with silly things like statistics, we all know that the American diet is killing our country, and is beginning to drag the rest of the world down with us as they adopt our dietary habits.  And yet we continue to become heavier and more diseased due to our food choices, despite a base level of knowledge that French fries and soda are unhealthy. 

This is a complex problem, the solution to which cannot begin to be devised in a single blog post.  There are social, financial, industrial, educational, socio-economic, political, and cultural forces at play, all of which intermingle in nuanced and unknown ways.  But there is one component of that cocktail that has been flitting about in my head recently. 

The other day I came across this article about McDonald’s head chef.  Yes, McDonald’s has a head chef.  He is paid to apply his vast culinary knowledge to the fast food machine, finding inspiration in food he’d actually be proud to prepare and commoditizing it into food that Americans actually want to eat.  Reading that article then made me think of this post by Ezra Klein of The Washington Post wherein he analyzes the smoke and mirrors that are The Cheesecake Factory.

These articles both point to something that is often overlooked in the battle against the bulge.  Every day vast corporations employing teams of highly trained specialists spend astronomical amounts of money creating, testing, and modifying their menu offerings to accomplish two things: 1) making them profitable, and 2) making them irresistible.  When you walk into a chain restaurant you sit down to a menu that exists for the sole purpose of making your mouth water.  And this, my friends, makes healthy living quite tricky.

An increasing number of chains have begun to provide some transparency around the nutritional make-up of their menus.  The Cheesecake Factory is not among them.  Open their menu and you are facing a nutritional black box.  You know precious little about the health ramifications of the decision you’re about to make.  What you know a lot about, though, are the pleasure ramifications.  Absent any other data you are destined to make an ill-informed, if well-intentioned, decision.  Concern over any nutritional missteps can be assuaged by the knowledge that this is just one meal.  And that is where the train runs off the tracks.

A failure to extrapolate the implications of a single meal decision out over a lifetime of eating is what takes a simple, harmless indulgence and transforms it into diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and various cancers.  Eating pizza for supper tonight is not a crisis.  Even eating too much pizza for supper tonight is not a crisis.  But eating pizza for supper several nights a week is a categorically different situation.  The thing is, we all know this.  But there are many compelling reasons to make poor choices.  They are cheap, convenient, and utterly delicious. 

But here’s my favorite factor at play in this dark underworld of food R&D.  We have the power of the purse.  Restaurant corporations are Goliath, but we are David.  So far, we have played into their hands, padding both our bottoms and their bottom lines.  But armed with knowledge we become wise to their wiles.  For me there is something empowering about the awareness that I’ve been duped.  Specifically, I get a little bit mad.  And when I get a little bit mad it makes me want to get a little bit even.  I am one woman.  I understand that eating my salad at home instead of in a restaurant booth isn’t going to change the system.  But if a few million of us decided to try our hands at some good natured revenge it might add up to something. 

I’m sure this is all quite naïve.  But I can’t help but find myself saddened by the knowledge that big companies are playing to our evolutionary and cultural weaknesses and spinning it as family, fraternity, and fun.  We are not stupid.  And I think we should stand up and say so.

7 Responses to “R&D Darlings”

  1. Anne Says:

    I think I always knew there was a lot going on behind the scenes, but this is certainly unnerving. One time I ordered a salad at the Cheesecake Factor but asked if I could get a half order. Of course they declined. Then I told them I’d pay the same amount but could they just bring me half the order. They got fussy, and declined again. I decided, at that moment, that the Cheesecake Factory was kinda weird.

    Makes me glad I cooked dinner last night. If we go out this weekend, what’s the solution? My guess is…eat local.

  2. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    It’s true! They work really hard to make that food as addictive as crack! Junk Food Crack. And while nobody is forcing people to eat it, the methodology does seem kind of sinister.

  3. Eva Says:

    Did you watch “Super Size Me” – the Morgan Spurlock documentary from a few years back, where he eats only McDonald’s for a month? It was amazing how the food affected his body, and how addicted he became to the food. And it’s understandable – man, sometimes I crave those fries!

    And, as Anne points out, portion control is practically impossible when eating out.

    So glad for your post here, Gale. A movement is starting, but we need to keep working on it, expecting more of ourselves and our society.

  4. Laura H. Says:

    Just read a Yahoo article yesterday about the most unhealthy pasta dishes and check this one out:

    Cheesecake Factory KID’S Pasta with Alfredo Sauce
    1,803 calories
    87 g saturated fat
    876 mg sodium
    70 g carbohydrates

    It’s bad enough to stick this much fat into an adult-size meal, but for a child? That ought to be deemed criminally negligent. This cream- and cheese-infused pasta bowl is bloated with–are you ready for this?– MORE SATURATED FAT THAN AN ADULT SHOULD EAT IN FOUR DAYS, and more calories than you’d find in 40 Chicken McNuggets.

  5. Corinne Says:

    I’m loving Jamie Oliver’s show. I’m baffled by what we blindly consume, and how companies expect the blindness and shrug off those who question and try to change…

    Very well written, thank you :)

  6. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Thanks, Gale, for another thoughtful essay. I have seen the commercials for Jamie Oliver’s new show, but haven’t caught it yet. I think I’d like to.

    A few years ago I had minor surgery and had to follow a very specific diet for a few weeks during my recuperation. It was the first time in my life that I really thought about what constitutes a serving. Needless to say, my most recent meal at the Cheesecake Factory – an enormous Caesar salad and an entire margherita pizza – probably consisted of about 20 servings, if not more.

    As you so eloquently say, that single meal – the likes of which I don’t eat very often – is not a crisis. But it’s easy to extrapolate from there and to see the root of the obesity crisis in the States.

  7. Ten Dollar Thoughts » Blog Archive » Weekly Allowance Says:

    [...] Promise of Menu Labeling – When I was “researching” for my post last week about food R&D I came back across this post from Ezra Klein, which is an old favorite of mine.  Apparently menu [...]