Monday, January 9, 2012

Have It Your Way, You Masochist

I'm not generally a big fan of fast food. I like it, and think it tastes good, but there's no denying that it's low quality (unless of course, you're a PR firm representing a fast food empire, in which case it’s perfectly normal to be in complete denial).

Common sense tells us that low quality food should not taste good, but Americans continue to jam the drive-thru every morning and stop in on their lunch breaks. Much of this can be attributed to the “fast” aspect, but people actually claim that they really think the food tastes good. Why?

Flavor enhancers. They’re cheap, effective ways to make food taste better; unfortunately, they generally carry health risks when used to excess. Fortunately for fast food restaurants, your health is not a concern to them.

The mechanism behind flavor enhancers is the activation of the salty, sweet, and umami taste receptors. Everyone is familiar with the bitter, sour, salty, and sweet taste receptors, but umami is a more recently discovered taste that senses and sends a “savory” signal to the brain. Those three tastes stimulate the reward center of the brain, while bitter and sour tastes often carry a negative association.

To make terrible food taste good, fast food restaurants douse their products in flavor enhancers that tickle that happy part of your brain. Here are a few widely used enhancers:

  • Salt: One of the oldest known flavor additives. It’s so cheap that a pound of table salt costs something like 59 cents. I honestly have no idea how Morton’s stays in business when i give them two quarters and a dime once every five years. Unfortunately, salt has also been linked to high blood pressure and heart disease. Activates the “salty” taste.
  • High fructose corn syrup: Refining sugar from sugar cane and then bleaching it to make it white costs a lot more than you’d expect, and it takes a lot of sugar to override bitter tastes, such as those found in tea. Major players in the food industry turned to this substitute because of corn subsidies provided by the U.S. government. It has been suggested that it contributes to habits that keep the body permanently hungry, leading to obesity. Activates the “sweet” taste, of course.
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG): This white powder tastes bad by itself, but can make just about anything taste more “savory.” As a result, it is widely used in many fast-food-style products. Health consequences have been suspected but never proven. Activates the “savory” taste.

And then there are the fats: Cooking oils, butter and butter substitutes, and all those high-energy (high-calorie) ingredients that combine to make your face explode with happiness. Fast food has always been criticized for its high caloric levels, and as a PR strategy, many companies have decided to go transparent, shifting the obesity blame to the consumer (where it probably belongs). Most of these companies list nutrition values clearly on their websites.

Burger King goes one step further and makes it into a BurgerTime-style game of sorts, supporting their “Have It Your Way” slogan with a meal-making gizmo on their website that lets you create just about anything. I created everything from a hamburger with no buns to a pile of condiments before deciding it would be funny to add everything available, just to see what kind of health nightmare I might face.

I love the way the meat tower blocks the word "nutrition."

The food generator encourages you to “Share Your Meal” with others, or print it out and take it to the nearest Burger King to have them create it, ensuring that you can Have It Your Way. Presumably, they have some way to calculate the cost of your Frankenburger. I decided to print out my thoroughly unrealistic monstrosity and find out how much a 13,670 calorie burger with 876 grams of fat might cost.

“Hello, welcome to Burger King. Can I have your order?”

“Yes, I printed out this burger I made on the website. I was wondering if you could give me a quote on this.” The cashier stared at the printout, then politely asked me what the hell it was. “It’s a burger-maker thing on your website. You build your own thing, then bring it here to have it made, right?”

She had never heard of such a thing, and called over a manager.

“Sir, is this a coupon? I’m not sure what to do with this.”

“You’ve never heard of the burger-maker thing on the website?” I asked. They confirmed that they had not. I was still determined to have it my way, anyway.

“I’ll take a veggie burger—with bacon,” I said, completely ruining the purpose of the meatless patty. I hadn’t done any research ahead of time to see how the caloric content compared, but considering that MSG and salt are entirely flesh-free, I presumed it would be loaded with flavor enhancers.

I went home and built my confused sandwich using the website’s tool; without bacon, I had still broken 1000 mg of sodium and 16 grams of fat. I had truly believed that I was eating healthier, but as it turns out, you can’t even Go Veg at a fast food restaurant and get something healthy. (Note: 1000 mg of sodium in the sandwich alone is roughly half the recommended daily allowance.)

So I guess I can’t really have it my way, assuming “my way” doesn’t involve exacting a slow and destructive toll on my body. Well, you could always go for a salad. Just don’t use any dressing.

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