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June/July 2007
Spitting 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 Food 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.

Young heroes.

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 amount of 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 morning cartoons.

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 all.

I think the fast food industry would argue, not because of, but since Fast Food 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 Oz.
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.

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