Prohibition Drives Fast Food Underground?

gaza kfcNot quite, although this does make for a good headline.

The actual story, which accompanies the global media reports of the underground smuggling operation that illegally routes KFC contraband to Gaza, however does illustrate the lengths to which people will go to obtain their crunchy fat, salt and sugar fix.

The report in the International Herald Tribune describes the distance KFC has to travel as,

“…a journey that involved two taxis, an international border, a smuggling tunnel and a young entrepreneur coordinating it all from a small shop here called Yamama — Arabic for pigeon.”

According to this report, the entrepreneur, a Mr. Efrangi (aka “the Kentucky guy”),

“..has coordinated four deliveries totaling about 100 meals, making about $6 per meal in profit. He promotes the service on Yamama’s Facebook page, and whenever there is a critical mass of orders — usually 30 — he starts a complicated process of telephone calls, wire transfers and coordination with the Hamas government to get the chicken from there to here.”

While the report focuses on the “resilience” of the Gaza inhabitants, who are merely seeking to live a “normal life”, the story does speak to the lengths that people will go still their “cravings”.

While Mr. Efrangi, for logistical reasons, limits his orders to chicken pieces, fries, coleslaw and apple pie, he may not be in business for long.

As the Tribune reports,

“A Gaza businessman who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Abu Ali, to avoid tipping off his competitors, said he applied for a franchise from KFC’s Middle East dealer, Americana Group, two months ago. Adeeb al-Bakri, who owns four KFC and Pizza Hut franchises in the West Bank, said he had been authorized to open a restaurant in Gaza and was working out the details.”

Throughout human history, people have desired what is most difficult to get – bans and prohibitions have always made stuff more worth having than before (whilst upping the “cool-factor”) – apparently, junk food is no exception.

As an interesting side note, which perhaps speaks to the “addictiveness” of the KFC formula, some readers may recall that KFC (now belonging to PepsiCo) was at one time owned by R.J. Reynolds (now RJR Nabisco) – the makers of Camel, Pall Mall, Winston and other “choice tobacco products”.

Edmonton, AB


Is Foie Gras Junk Food?

Yesterday, I gave a talk to Alberta Agriculture on my take of the obesity epidemic(thanks to Annette for the invitation) . Obviously, the best way to influence policy is to talk to policy makers, so an opportunity to present my views to policy makers is always appreciated.

Given that the audience was keenly interested in issues related to nutrition, it was not surprising that questions arose around the issue of junk food (actually this topic comes up at virtually every talk on obesity).

The discussion again made obvios the difficulty of the concept of junk food – i.e., when exactly is food junk? Now obviously, from an obesity perspective any form of “empty” calories would constitute junk food, that one is easy. But what about real food with more than just calories?

When I look to Wikipedia for a definition, I find the following (slightly paraphrased for brevity):

Junk food is food that is unhealthy and/or has little or no nutritional value. It contains high levels of refined sugar, white flour, trans fat and polyunsaturated fat, salt, and numerous food additives such as monosodium glutamate and tartrazine; at the same time, it is lacking in proteins, vitamins and fiber, among other healthy attributes. It is popular because it is easy to purchase, requires little or no preparation, is convenient to consume and has lots of flavor.

Clear enough, you’d think.

But the same post in Wikipedia also says why this definition is not easy (again paraphrased for brevity):

What constitutes unhealthy food may be confusing and, according to critics, includes elements of class snobbery, cultural influence and moral judgement. For example, fast food in North America, such as as hamburgers and french fries supplied by companies like McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut, are often perceived as junk food, whereas the same meals supplied by more up-market outlets such as California Pizza Kitchen or Nando’s are not, despite often having the same or worse nutritional content. Some foods that are considered ethnic or traditional are not generally considered junk food, such as falafel, gyro, pakora, gyoza or chicharron, though all of these foods have little nutritional value and are usually high in fat from being fried in oil. Other foods such as white rice, roast potatoes and processed white bread are not considered junk food despite having limited nutritional content compared to wholegrain foods. Similarly, breakfast cereals are often regarded as healthy but may have high levels of sugar, salt and fat.

So the question is, “what exactly constitutes junk food?”. If French fries from McDonalds are junk food because they contain little nutritional value, what about the over priced “hand cut” deli fried served in high-class restaurants? Does charging more money make junk food less “junkie”? What about foods like foie gras, caviar, lard – foods with no nutritional value, but eaten simply for their taste? Are these junk foods?

I sure do not envy the policy makers who have to decide what exactly constitutes “junk” food and where exactly to draw the line for healthy vs. unhealthy foods (e.g. Exactly how many calories per gram of food are admissable caloric density? How much refined sugar/sodium/fat per what are acceptable? Are all fried foods automatically junk food? Does throwing in some vitamins, protein and fibre make an unhealthy food healthier? etc.).

Not questions that I want to answer or take a stand on.

As I blogged before, in the context of obesity it’s the calories that count – discussing nutrients is out of my league.

Edmonton, Alberta


The Faster the Food – the Greater the Risk?

This weekend, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion following a public viewing of the documentary Super Size Me.

The event was part of the University of Alberta’s Centenary Celebrations and was co-hosted by the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry’s Arts & Humanities in Health & Medicine program and the Edmonton Public Library in their film series called “Good Medicine”.

As a panelist, I had the opportunity to see the film again and to reflect on what the film is actually about.

Of course, given that the film shows how Morgan Spurlock super sizes himself by eating nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days, this film can easily be interpreted to simply show how bad fast food is for you.

While there is no question that given its high content of fat, sugar and salt, fast food is certainly not the most nutritious food, to me, this is not what the film actually proves.

In fact, when you think about it, Morgan could have splurged on 5000 KCal a day of even the most nutritious and expensive foods for 30 days and probably have gained as much weight and felt as sick in the end. Yes, you can gain weight on healthy foods!

Even the most pricey restaurants, do not necessarily design their meals to be healthy and balanced and I am probably not the only one who has eaten over 2500 KCal in food and wine at a single meal even in restaurants featuring celebrity chefs – no shortage of fat, sugar and salt in those foods either.

So eating at McDonald’s was just a cheaper way to make this film – no doubt, had Morgan eaten all his meals at a 3-star restaurant, he would have needed a much larger budget for his film. In other words – this was just a “cheap” shot at McDonald’s.

Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing healthy about McDonald’s or most of the food you can get at any fast food chain. But the film does not prove this.

What the film does show though, is that eating 5000 KCal a day can lead to weight gain and make you feel pretty sick. What the film also shows is that this is quite easy to do on fast food. Part of this is because the food is so cheap (=affordable). But another important reason why it is so easy to overeat is because the food is designed to be eaten fast.

I have previously blogged about the notion that the problem with fast food is more the “fast” than the “food” (see my post No Time to be Thin). It is indeed very hard to significantly overeat on “slow” food. This is because, when you eat slow, you will be quite full long before you have managed to tuck away 2000 KCal at a single meal. In fact, the bulkier and greater the volume of the food (i.e. the lower the caloric density), the harder it is to eat 2000 KCal at a single meal.

In the film Morgan also criticizes McDonald’s for offering to super size your order (which they have since stopped doing). This, however, is also not so different from what happens in any restaurant, where the servers are trained to offer an appetizer, salad, dessert and more wine if you don’t remember to order these extra calories yourself. They will also be happy to “super size” your steak order by offering to add a lobster tail or extra cream or cheese on you baked potato.

So here is what I think the film does show:

a) eating 5000 KCal a day leads to weight gain, which in turn is likely to make you sick

b) McDonald’s (and no doubt other fast food restaurants) make it easy and affordable for you to do so

c) McDonald’s (and virtually every other restaurant I know of) wants you to eat more and will try any trick in the book to get you to do so

How do we deal with this – for one, we could begin by posting calories on ALL menus – hopefully a disincentive to overeating, no matter how fast or slow the food.