When James Dean said, "Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse" in the 1950s, Americans were much thinner and fast food was a new invention. Today Americans are simply too chubby to live as fast as the lean 1950s idol. Instead they eat fast food, die younger than they should and leave increasingly obese corpses.

Along with smoking, substance abuse and inactivity, fast food presents one of the greatest public-interest health threats to Americans today. Fast food is almost universally dangerous and should probably carry a warning from the surgeon general. It contains meat-based carcinogens, is high in total calories and saturated fat and is a principal source of trans fat.

North Americans are always looking to shave a few seconds off everything–even eating. Fast food is a $103-billion industry and more than 25,000 new fast-food restaurants opened between 1996 and 1998. In a country obsessed with immediate gratification and conspicuous consumption, what could be more seductive than the capacity to consume excessively at a moment’s notice? The dominance of the fast-food culture makes it possible to have almost continual, unhealthy moveable feasts–daily.

Not only is the food dangerous, but it promotes a lifestyle and culture that are also dangerous. Our lives are fast, frenetic and commercial. Food should be our sanctuary from the madness, not part of it. It’s no accident that Dave Thomas, the happy CEO of Wendy’s who pushes the company’s burgers on TV, had a coronary bypass operation several years ago. As we can see on more recent commercials, he’s dropped a few pounds, but that hasn’t stopped him from hawking his products to the rest of us.

Fat Kids

North American children are not eating well. Approximately 30 percent of them are obese, up more than 50 percent in the past 20 years. In general, children eat too much, and much of what they eat is unhealthy.

A study sponsored by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine revealed that despite poverty and poorer access to health care, immigrant children are actually healthier than their American-born counterparts, having fewer short- and long-term health problems. The researchers noted that immigrant children eat fewer processed foods and more fruits, grains and vegetables. Unfortunately, as time goes on, the immigrant children acquire the unhealthy eating habits of American-born children.

Most people know that fast food is not good for you, but many don’t realize how dangerous it really is. They probably know about the calories, saturated fat and maybe even the potential carcinogens in the beef. But maybe they think they can escape the worst of it by skipping the burger and having the Chicken McNuggets or the french fries. After all, fries are just potatoes cooked in vegetable oil, right? Unfortunately the fries may be worse than the burger. Why? Trans fats.

Fast Food And Trans Fats

Trans fats are man-made fats that were virtually unknown to humans until 1911, when Procter & Gamble, the people who brought you Olestra, first marketed Crisco. Before Crisco, if you wanted to make a pie crust, you needed to use rendered lard or beef tallow as your solid fat source. But Procter & Gamble discovered that adding hydrogen to polyunsaturated cottonseed oil made it more saturated and turned it into a solid fat at room temperature. If you look on the labels of many manufactured food items you will see the words "partially hydrogenated"–meaning that the manufacturer added hydrogen to a polyunsaturated fat, making it into a trans fat. The more saturated a fat becomes, the stiffer and more solid it gets. Trans fats are also less likely to go rancid and thus have a longer shelf-life.

Procter & Gamble used what was abundant and cheap in the early 1900s–cottonseed oil–to build its partially hydrogenated evil twin–Crisco. In the 1930s the same technology was applied to the increasingly cheap and very abundant soybean oil. Today you will see that many oils are subject to this potentially dangerous process, sometimes even olive oil. Fast foods are probably the biggest source of trans fats in our diet.

Up until the late 1980s, fast-food restaurants deep-fried food in beef tallow loaded with artery-choking saturated fats. In the early 1990s, McDonalds, responding in part to public pressure, proudly announced that its fries would be cooked in "cholesterol-free 100 per cent vegetable oil." While this was true, it was not the whole truth. The whole truth is that McDonalds uses partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. In other words, it uses trans fats, which are at least as bad for your blood cholesterol as the saturated fats they replaced, and probably worse.

In some ways this is another kind of high-fat fraud. You go into a fast food outlet and choose the fries instead of the burger, thinking you’re avoiding saturated fat. But it turns out that you’re no better off. Temperatures used for deep-frying liberate legions of deadly free radicals from fats. Even more frightening is the effect for multiple frying episodes. Fats that are used again and again for frying oxidize at frighteningly high rates.

The next time you see a basket of fries plunged into a vat of bubbling brown oil, you should get out of that place as quickly as possible!

We are surrounded by trans fats in many of the foods we eat, but the single largest dose we are likely to get is still the seemingly innocuous, cholesterol-free french fries from Wendy’s, Burger King or McDonalds. McDonalds is the largest source of these potentially fatal fries.

McDonalds understands that food is a cultural issue and it spends more than half a billion dollars a year promoting the McDonalds culture of eating. That culture is even penetrating public schools, places where children should be learning to make healthy lifestyle choices. Fast-food chains are now contracting with public schools to provide unhealthy, trans fat-laden lunches for our children.

In an effort to attract children to the McDonalds culture of eating, the company has created a cultural icon that rivals some of the most universally recognized symbols in Western culture. According to Rolling Stone magazine, 96 per cent of school children surveyed could recognize Ronald McDonald, making him second only to Santa Claus in name recognition and the Golden Arches are more recognized than the Christian cross.

About the Author

Excerpted with permission from Low-Fat Lies: High-Fat Frauds, LifeLine Press, 1999.