Cheap fast foods and their expensive costs

In the age of “On-demand”, people want everything on demand and as quickly as possible. Even food and meals have not been spared – people want their food to be ready much faster now. Unsurprisingly, we are now seeing the omnipresence of “Fast Food” and “Instant”/”Ready to Eat” food – foods which can be prepared much more quicker than proper meals. Part of this is possible due to the composition of these foods – loaded with chemicals – or prepared by unhealthy methods (deep frying, excessive salt, etc.). The appeal of fast foods lie in the fact that they are more economic, require less effort to prepare, and some would point, more delicious.

Not only have these meals increasingly demanded, people are now spending less time consuming their meals. Consequently, we are seeing a rise in the number of people afflicted by health related problems, such as diabetes and obesity, which could lead to health complications such as sleep apnea. Interestingly enough, while sleep apnea is a health condition, it can be treated at Southcentre Dental Clinic.   Unsurprisingly, these diseases not only have an impact on people’s health, but also incur cost on a country’s economy – through healthcare and lost productivity.

One does not need to look too far back to understand the enormity of the global fast food industry. In 2016, the entire industry’s revenue was close to US$540 billion, and is expected to reach US$690 billion in 2022, with a CAGR of 4.2%. The growth in demand is driven by people who want the food to be prepared quickly (and subsequently consumed quickly). There is also an increasing reluctance amongst people to cook food at home (time constraints due to priorities, the effort/hassle of preparing, etc.) which turns them towards convenient fast food options.

Fast food outlets, too, fuel this growth by offering various delicious (albeit unhealthy) dishes on their menus, as well delivery to the customer’s doorstep. In addition, due to the lucrative nature of the industry, many new players are entering the market, often with similar offerings to others. This has resulted in a price war amongst the sellers, and each one is trying to undercut the competition by offering the dishes at a cheaper rate, further luring customers to buy. And although there is an increasing awareness about the perils of consuming such fast foods (and a resultant slight decrease in demand), the overall industry is still expected to grow.

Before one delves into the problems, one must understand the nature of fast foods, its composition and preparation methods – all of which will elucidate why and to what extent they create health problems for the consumers. In addition to the wide array of chemicals (used for flavouring, colouring, and preservation), the usual suspects are High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS, substitute for sugar), Monosodium Glutamate (MSG, substitute for salt), and hydrogenated oil (chemically-processed cheaper oil) used for frying and dairy substitute.

The problem with all this is that there is little organic/unadulterated ingredients used, diminishing the actual nutritional value of the food. The aforementioned substitutes and chemicals only add flavour and make the preparation process much simpler. A study of 74 samples of fast food items from 35 countries found them to contain severely high levels of industrially produced trans-fatty acids, which significantly contribute to obesity; a research cited in the study found a 30% increase in abdominal fat (an indicator of obesity) in monkeys being fed fast foods. Another study in Singapore found that consuming fast food at least twice or more times a week can increase the risk of developing diabetes by 27%, despite being less likely to be smokers and being more physically active.

Blood sugar levels mg/dL mmol/L
Low less than 65 less than 3.6
Normal – Optimal 65-100 3.6 – 5.5
Good Marginal 101 – 135 5.6 – 7.5
At Risk >137 >7.6

Figure: A blood sugar levels chart for non-fasting. Frequent consumption of HFCS pushes the glucose higher, which first creates the risk of high blood sugar, and if not treated and rises further, diabetes.

A 2010 study in the US analyzed the costs of obesity on the economy. The annual direct medical costs associated with obesity was estimated to be close to US$150 billion, while the productivity costs were close to US$66 billion. The study also estimated the indirect cost of obesity on transportation (increased fuel consumption, quicker wear and tear of vehicles and roads) to be approximately US$3.5 billion.

In the same vein, an extensive study in 2011 by Danish researchers recorded the actual cost of diabetes on their country and shed light on how indirectly, society incurs a cost due to the consumption of fast foods. Taking into account all the patients registered in their healthcare system diagnosed with the condition, they discovered a few exorbitant figures: the healthcare cost alone was close to EUR 1 billion (EUR 732 million for primary and secondary care services, and EUR 256 million for pharmaceutical drugs). Nursing costs were around Eur 1.9 billion, and most importantly, lost productivity of diabetic employees was estimated at Eur 1.77 billion. The annual social cost of diabetes in Denmark was a staggering Eur 4.67 billion in 2011.

It would be incorrect, however, to conclude that the costs associated with diabetes and obesity are entirely due to fast foods (other factors, such as genetics, can cause such problems). Nevertheless, these studies give us a decent idea of how fast food can set back an economy, given that fast foods are establishing themselves as the primary causes of such diseases.

There is a sanguine outlook to the future, however, as countries have now recognized the problems arising from fast food consumption and are implementing initiatives to minimize the impact. Mexico and the UK have imposed’ sugar tax’ on items with high sugar content (including HFCS). Denmark levied a ‘fat tax’ on food items which contained more than permitted levels of fats, for about a year in 2012 (it was cancelled due to industrial lobbying). Such policies have shown promise in altering people’s demand for fast foods, as the taxes will make them more expensive than before, and making them eat better. In addition, governments are raising awareness about diseases such as obesity and diabetes, and warning people about the harms of fast food consumption.

We live in a time now where everything is expected to be instantaneous, even foods. Thus came the advent of fast foods. Quickly prepared, quickly consumed. And although they are cheap, convenient and delicious (all which explain the ever-increasing demand), they come at a cost. Laced with chemicals and alternatives to common ingredients, fast foods are sources of various diseases – amongst which diabetes and obesity are most prevalent. These diseases not only ail the person afflicted, but also levy a cost on the entire country’s (for that matter, the world’s) economy. Consequently, various approaches are being implemented around the world to tackle the problems posed by fast foods. It may be an uphill battle, but there is still hope that the threats of fast foods can be dealt with emphatically.

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