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it Out! The Satya Interview with Charles Wilson
Charles Wilson. Photo by Al Nazemian
Charles Wilson is co-author with Eric Schlosser of Chew
On This (Everything
You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food), released in paperback by
Houghton Mifflin in April.
Wilson worked with Schlosser in 2000 on his book Fast Food Nation as a fact-checker,
spending months going through the book and arguing over every fact and figure.
The idea for Chew On This came a few years later when a friend of Wilson’s,
a children’s book publisher, suggested adapting the message of Fast
Nation to a younger audience. Wilson thought it was a good idea and brought it
up with Schlosser. He liked the idea and asked Wilson to co-write the book. So
began a project to bring the truth about fast food to the most heavily marketed
audience—youth—through storytelling and facts.
While Schlosser likes to publicly declare his love for meaty burgers, Wilson
has a different approach. “My mom raised me as a vegetarian,” he
explains. Yet, he understands the appeal of fast food to youngsters. “My
dad and I would sneak out when I was younger, occasionally, for Wendy’s
hamburgers, and they tasted really good.” Wilson also had an uncle who
was an independent cattle rancher, and when he was younger, would help round
up cattle on horseback. Since completing the research for Chew On This, though,
Wilson has become vegan.
Wilson is a researcher for the New York Times Magazine, and he has worked on
the staff of The New Yorker. Catherine Clyne recently chewed the veggie fat with
Charles Wilson about fast food, kids, “aorta chips” and going vegan.
What inspired the idea behind Chew On This?
The idea was to bring the message of Fast Food Nation to a younger audience.
These are the people who are most heavily targeted by the fast food industry
and fast food advertisements. We wanted to present an alternative point of view
from the one they are getting from $3 billion worth of television ads every year—$10
million a day.
What sort of original research did you do for Chew On This that wasn’t
done for Fast Food Nation?
We wanted to tell the book through the stories of young people. The books I had
liked as a young person involved young people acting individually, separate from
their parents, making their own choices and mistakes. This is a very easy industry
to tell the story of in that way because it relies so much on young people—both
for its workforce and its customer base.
I went around the country finding different stories. I profiled two girls who
had worked in a McDonald’s in West Virginia, near where I grew up, and
two brothers struggling with obesity in suburban Chicago. I went to western Alaska
and saw some of the problems caused by soda among Eskimo children there. One
of the stories is about a 12 year-old girl in Alaska. Many of her family members
were suffering from diabetes and dental problems, which she thought were related
to their soda consumption. She stood up and lobbied to get the soda machine taken
out of school and ultimately prevailed. This is exactly the sort of story Eric
and I knew were out there. We wanted to show young people that by making individual
choices, they can change the world in their own small way.
So part of the purpose is to inspire kids to stand up for what is right?
Eric and I always emphasize the title of the book is not Do This or Don’t
Do This, it’s Chew On This. Our main aim was to make our readers think
for themselves. This industry is very much a part of their daily lives—nine
out of ten kids eat at McDonald’s every month. But kids might have never
thought deeply about this industry, and they probably have no idea where the
food actually comes from. Our main hope was that by showing kids the slaughterhouses
that produce their food, or the industrial feedlots that support this industry,
or the chemical factories that produce much of fast food’s flavoring, it
might make kids stop and really ponder, Is this something I want to be putting
into my body?
Also, we wanted kids to see the fast food industry as it exists is not inevitable
but the result of individual choices people made along the way. It is an industry
that can also be changed by choices they make; they have a lot of power as consumers.
One of Schlosser’s primary points in Fast Food Nation was the
access the fast food industry has to kids. Can you talk about that?
This industry’s relationship with children really began with the McDonald
brothers and the founder of the McDonald’s chain, Ray Kroc. No restaurant
had thought to advertise directly to children before these three men. One of
the McDonald brothers noticed in the early days that he and his brother literally
had dozens of parents come in who told them they’d often deliberately driven
several blocks away from the restaurant in order to avoid having kids yell in
the back seat for a hamburger and a milkshake. They realized that if they could
get kids to pester their parents, they suddenly had three or four customers instead
of one or two—since kids couldn’t yet drive themselves. So McDonald’s
began giving out lollipops and later brought on a friendly clown, Ronald McDonald,
who became its national mascot.
It all began very innocently. Today, however, the marketing toward children is
very organized, and it’s pervasive and aggressive. Both Burger King and
McDonald’s have done promotions with Teletubbies, which are aimed at pre-verbal
children. McDonald’s sells or gives away 1.5 billion toys every year—enough
to supply three toys to every man, woman and child in the U.S. Nearly one-third
of all toys given to kids in the U.S. every year come from a fast food restaurant.
The chains spend millions of dollars studying kids and advertising on Saturday
We tried in our book to make kids aware that this happy, friendly image you see
in fast food ads—with thin, happy children having lots of fun—is
a deliberately cultivated mood that really has nothing to do with the food at
I think the fast food industry would argue, not because of, but since Fast
Nation and the film Super Size Me came out, they have tried to get more healthy
foods into their restaurants.
I applaud every move they make in that direction, as far as putting salads on
the menu or replacing French fries with apple slices. Yet if you look at why
McDonald’s has seen an increase in their revenue in the past few years,
it has been their Dollar Menu. Literally 98 percent of what McDonald’s
sells are unhealthy items like cheap hamburgers, cheeseburgers and French fries.
These are the foods that they are aggressively marketing in low-income communities,
not the salads.
Then there’s the issue of choice and taking responsibility for one’s
actions. For example, I confess enjoying SpongeBob SquarePants every now and
then [laughter], and Nickelodeon has an ad campaign to promote exercise, like
swimming. What do you think about such efforts?
I know the only reason I was willing to try spinach as a kid was I saw what it
did to Popeye when he ate it. But this is not how the most popular cartoon characters
have been used in recent history. They’ve been used to promote fast foods,
heavily sugared cereals and so forth. McDonald’s has made efforts to re-brand
Ronald McDonald as sort of a lifestyle guru who promotes health, exercise and
fun. Certainly that’s a better idea than having him be a couch potato.
But it’s also sending a very confusing message to kids: Ronald is now supposedly
looking out for your health, but he also continues to serve as the chief spokesman
for a company that makes most of its money off of junk food. I don’t think
Ronald should be the most trusted authority on lifestyle choices.
I think most of the players in this industry really want to support the idea
that it’s all about personal responsibility. And to a large extent, they
are right. I believe very strongly in personal responsibility and that, particularly
with adults, we are all free to make our own choices. If an adult wants to eat
a triple cheeseburger with bacon, an adult should be able to make that choice.
Yet I also feel that personal responsibility extends to the executives who market
this food and produce it. Many children and people in poorer communities are
not in a position to make good choices. Fast food executives have a personal
responsibility for their own choices to aggressively promote this cheap, unhealthy
food to children, who are establishing eating habits that will stay with them
the rest of their lives, often with expensive consequences. There is no reason
we can’t aggressively promote tasty, healthy food in the same way that
we currently market junk.
What are some examples you discovered in your research about how fast food directly
affects the health of young people?
I talked to some people involved in the Bogalusa Heart Study, a long-term study
of people’s health, based in Louisiana. They performed autopsies on kids
who had died by accident—car accidents and so forth—who were 10,
11, 12 years-old, and they found significant fatty streaks and precursors to
heart disease in kids who were not yet teenagers. What really struck home to
me—and what we hoped to convey in the book—was that the choices kids
are making now are going to stay with them their entire lives. We wanted to let
kids know that heart disease is not something that just happens to your dad;
it’s something you could be building right now inside of your own body.
That’s the stuff that wigged me out—your visit to Dr. Mehmet
I was given sort of a tour of the human body by Dr. Mehmet Oz, who’s here
in New York at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. It was sort of surreal. He had
this white bucket that said “Hearts for Dr. Oz,” and he opened it
up and pulled out a diseased heart and a healthy heart. He also laid different
human body parts on a table—aortas, kidneys, livers, spines—one healthy
organ beside an unhealthy organ, for comparison. Then he would show me the effects
of a bad diet on each part.
It was fascinating. I had no idea how we look on the inside when we put all this
stuff into our bodies. He showed me this aorta of someone who’d been eating
saturated fat all of their life. He could literally peel off chips of fat. He
called them “aorta chips”—they looked like little potato chips.
That really hit home. Like, wow!
I thought this would be perfect for our book. In elementary school you often
see pictures of the blackened lungs of smokers, but I didn’t have any sense
of how profoundly one’s diet could change the appearance of many different
parts of you. This tour was something we hoped would appeal to kids’ vanity,
and allow them to see that the choices they are making now have consequences.
That and the gross-out factor.
[Laughter.] This book isn’t scared to occasionally use the gross-out factor.
Luckily, the fast food industry lends itself very easily to this approach. We
have a picture of a four million-pound cow poop pile that caught fire. It looks
at first glance like a scenic Rocky Mountain backdrop, but then you realize it’s
something not nearly as serene. It’s a good way of illustrating the industrial
feedlot and the dangers of concentrating too many cows together in one place.
To kids who aren’t big readers or who might not be eager to pick up a book
like this, we hoped that these gross pictures might be a gateway to allow them
to begin to talk about some of the issues in the book with kids who might be
more self-motivated to read the book.
Or just ogle over the information: Look at the bugs they crush up to make some
milkshakes pink. Ewww!
Exactly. It’s shocking to me how kids react to the idea that bugs are used
to color their food, and it is always a visceral reaction. I gave a speech at
a school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in which I showed a picture of the cochineal
bugs that are used to color things red. The kids had been sitting quietly and
attentively, and when I showed the picture of the bugs, there was like this almost
tidal, tsunami-like uproar. It began quietly and spread across the auditorium.
Kids were standing up and turning to their friends and pointing, talking, and
even in a couple cases, shrieking. It took the school administrator a good minute
or two to get order back again. That’s when I realized that this information
wasn’t shocking anymore to me, and I also realized in a larger sense how
easily we can habituate ourselves to something that might not be so good. The
raw reaction that the kids had also made me realize how out of touch—how
little we actually know—about where our fast food comes from.
How did your work on this book affect you personally, in terms of your diet and
the way you look at food now?
After I completed the research for this book I learned more about the battery
cages for egg-laying hens. With McDonald’s, their egg-laying facilities
can have more than one million birds under one roof and often they’re not
given much more space than a sheet of paper to live the majority of their lives.
At the same time, I also learned how mechanized and industrialized the dairy
industry has become. So I really was looking hard at myself and trying to think
whether I could justify eating industrialized eggs and dairy anymore. And I decided
that I really couldn’t. So I’ve been almost exclusively vegan since.
One of the really interesting things about Chew On This was how the fast food
industry responded to it.
When the book came out there were very organized attempts to combat it. There
were press releases written against the book by organizations I had never heard
of. We found that one main organization working against it was a DC lobbying
group, called DCI Group, and that they were given money by McDonald’s.
In schools we visited, there were letters written to principals suggesting we
were not good people to have visit a school, and so forth. But these attempts
were really unsuccessful.
Is there anything you want to add?
I think part of the power of Fast Food Nation was that Eric is a meat-eater,
and that he loves hamburgers. My uncle was also an independent cattle rancher,
and I loved his way of life. Both Fast Food Nation and Chew On This were not
written with any sort of creed or desire to convert people. McDonald’s
launched a campaign overseas in response to the book called “Make up your
own mind,” and in the conclusion of our paperback we say we really agree
with that slogan. We feel young people should be able to make up their own minds.
But to do so they need more than one point of view. We encourage kids who read
our book to also look at the information that fast food chains are giving to
counter it. Then they can try to figure out for themselves what their truth is.