What we can learn from McDonald’s oatmeal
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What we can learn from McDonald’s oatmeal

Cookbook author and food activist Mark Bittman has a piece in the New York Times taking McDonald’s to task for adding oatmeal to its menu as an ostensibly healthy breakfast alternative and then loading it up with fat and chemicals to the point that from a nutritional standpoint it’s not significantly better than a sausage biscuit.

To me, this says less about McDonald’s than it does about the typical McDonald’s diner. If the restaurant could sell oatmeal that’s actually healthy in the same volume as the unhealthy oatmeal that they offer, they would probably do so. What we can infer from the composition of McDonald’s oatmeal is that the people who order it want to feel like they’re making a positive choice, but that when it comes down to it, their main interest is in eating something that satisfies their craving for fast food. That’s why they’re eating McDonald’s as opposed to making a bowl of cheap, healthy oatmeal in their own home.

This is, I think, a large problem with food activism in general. Food activists want to believe that most people are bamboozled into eating unhealthy diets of processed foods and that a little education will go a long way toward getting people to change their habits. I think it’s much more likely that people appreciate the convenience of processed foods and that food scientists and market researchers in the food industry have a very good idea of exactly which kinds of products people will be eager to buy. McDonald’s makes the oatmeal that they can sell.

12 thoughts on “What we can learn from McDonald’s oatmeal

  1. Well, yeah. My monthly-or-so Burger King excursion isn’t because I think it’s good, healthy, tasty food, it’s because they’re right across the street from my apartment and sometimes I’m getting home from work at 9 PM and I’m too tired to cook anything or try to find a better take-out restaurant open that late or wait for the better restaurant to prepare my food, and a bowl of cereal just isn’t very satisfying.

  2. I think you may be underestimating the extent to which some people eat at McDonalds, or other equally bad fast-food outlets, because of a paucity of other options. The problem of “food deserts” is real — Teresa and I live in one, a stretch of Brooklyn with no decent supermarkets and few healthy restaurant options within walking distance. We cope by doing our grocery shopping a couple of neighborhoods away and paying a car service to bring us and our bags of healthy food home, but we’re not living on a tiny fixed income. If we were a single mother on welfare I suspect the visissitudes of life and the absence of nearby alternatives would lead to us eating rather too much McDonalds or White Castle food, because those establishments are right down the block and the good grocery stores are a mile or two away. (Recall also that New York City is a place where car ownership is not a default, and that while our mass transit system is extensive, it is neither free nor does it serve every part of the city equally well.)

    Yes, it’s not that hard for anyone in our neighborhood to (say) buy good oatmeal and prepare it at home, were they to make it a specific priority, but what we’re really talking about is the direction in which a lot of small incentives point. Saying that “McDonalds makes the oatmeal that they can sell” and leaving it at that is exactly the kind of conclusion that right-wingers love, because it leaves the problem at the level of individual moral failure — if those lower-class people are getting fed badly, it’s because they’re individually lazy. Once you’ve decided that people just want junk food and that’s that, you don’t have to wonder how it is that the mighty engine of capitalism that that solves all problems and answers all needs can’t manage to offer a few more options to millions of people who live in neighborhoods like ours.

    McDonalds sells the kind of oatmeal it sells because people like sweet fatty food. They also do what they do because over decades they’ve managed to game all kinds of public regulatory structures and drive out all kinds of private competition. You’re probably right that food activists like Bittman overestimate the power of education as a counterweight to McDonalds’ appeal. But while such education may be insufficient, it’s still necessary — it’s where any attempt to look systematically at our crap food system has got to start.

  3. To me, this seems to fit in with a Tipping Point view of menu labeling, where the instigation to change doesn’t come from individuals assessing that information separately and the market pushing companies to offer healthier options, but from mavens, connectors, and salesman (Bittman, in this case) using menu information to engage in a slow dance of brand-threat (on the part of the activists) and gradual improvement of menus (as companies like McDonalds figure out what they can sell).

  4. People who place a high priority on eating well (taste and nutritionwise) IME significantly overestimate the value of convenience in time/place/speed for folks who don’t make that as high of a priority. I understand fast food is never going to be as healthy as eating at home and cooking with an aim of eating healthily. However, to the extent that for me, convenience has to be a priority (try being too sick to cook!) I do wish I had better/higher quality prepared/convenience choices, and take them when I can. (I’m also aware I’m lucky to have as many of those as I have.)

  5. People who place a high priority on eating well (taste and nutritionwise) IME significantly underestimate the value of convenience in time/place/speed for folks who don’t make that as high of a priority. I understand fast food is never going to be as healthy as eating at home and cooking with an aim of eating healthily. However, to the extent that for me, convenience has to be a priority (try being too sick to cook!) I do wish I had better/higher quality prepared/convenience choices, and take them when I can. (I’m also aware I’m lucky to have as many of those as I have.)

  6. “To me, this says less about McDonald’s than it does about the typical McDonald’s diner.”

    I agree with PNH and was surprised to see this take here. There are deep systemic incentives (and misincentives) in our food system. The bigger levers for change are with institutions and corporations, not with individual behavior and their “choices”/”preferences”.

  7. I don’t think I made my point particularly well. It’s not that poor people are lazy and get the food that they deserve. It’s that the incentives in the system are not helpful in the grand scheme of things. The incentive for food producers is to create products that they market as being healthy but then make them the same sugary, fatty crap that people generally buy anyway. I’ve been fascinated by these products for awhile now. Check out the amount of sugar in fast food salad dressings, or the nutritional information on pre-packaged fruit smoothies. You may as well have a burger and a shake as have that stuff.

    In an ideal world, everybody would know that any food described as being healthy by a large food producer probably isn’t, and would punish them on the market by not buying that stuff. We don’t live in that world, though, nor do we live in a world where people carefully read food labels and make informed choices about food.

    So the question is how to fix it given those factors? Let’s say you live in a place where McDonald’s is the only convenient choice for breakfast. (If that were true for me, I’d probably eat a sausage biscuit every time just because that’s what I love. As it is, I usually eat a bowl of Cheerios.) Your best bet is to order the overpriced oatmeal and tell them to leave out all the unhealthy stuff, and you may do that if you read labels and really, really care. If you want to eat healthy but you’re not paying attention, you’ll probably just order the unhealthy oatmeal. And if you just want to eat something that tastes good, you’ll probably get a bacon egg and cheese biscuit.

    Clearly the best way to improve this scenario is for McDonald’s to make the default oatmeal the healthy version. At least then someone who comes in, scans the menu for a healthy option and orders the oatmeal doesn’t end up eating some kind of Trojan Horse. Maybe the best approach to getting that to happen is shaming McDonald’s for how they make their oatmeal. And in truth, they should be ashamed. I just know they’re not.

  8. “Clearly the best way to improve this scenario is for McDonald’s to make the default oatmeal the healthy version.”

    Except the healthy version likely won’t sell well. Let’s face it, fat tastes good (yum bacon!) and if they could sell the same amount of healthy oatmeal as the fat filled version they would do that (because it would be cheaper to produce).

  9. I think I’d be more inclined to agree with you if it weren’t for the reactions people have when restaurants (are forced to) post calorie counts for their foods. I have tons of anecdotal evidence that they change behavior, and New York City seems to have been successful enough that the plan made it into the final big health care bill last year.

    While I think people are participating in the fast food industry with their eyes wide open about what “fast food” is and how unhealthy it is, when you make people look at the specifics, their minds can be changed.

  10. I am a business owner with a 2 year old. My mornings are hectic. I also want to eat healthy. It is hard to find time to eat before getting out of the house. They say oatmeal is one of the best things to eat for breakfast. When I saw McDonald’s had oatmeal with fruit..I thought to myself GREAT!! There is nothing wrong with people having busy lives, wanting quick fixes for breakfast..we need quick healthy alternatives to cooking at home. Why are we to blame? Just because I want a fast breakfast does not mean I want bad food….I just want “FAST” food. We need a FAST food place with healthy, good food choices.

  11. For certain, there is a trend in fast food toward presumably healthy items that, upon closer inspection (of the nutritional facts) are not very healthy.

    Similar examples include “salads,” which after accounting for all the sugary, salty, fatty mix-ins and dressings, are no better for you than a big old fatty bacon cheeseburger.

    People purchase these items because they think they are getting something healthy. These things taste good because of the unhealthy ingredients, thus perpetuating the cycle. Only when people choose to be more educated in their food decisions, will this mindless “I think it’s good for me” behavior end.

  12. Interesting. How long does it take to make oatmeal? How long does it take to get in the car and go get oatmeal?

    The sad truth is that people really do think they’re eating healthier. If there are specks of soemthing that looks like vegetables in the food, they feel like they made a healthy choice.

    We’re all busy. We all have the same 24 hours. The funny thing is, the people who make it a priority to eat healthier are also the ones who find time to get exercise and write blogs.

    Ginger, you say you’re too sick to cook. Could it be that you’re too sick because you don’t cook? Fruits and vegetables don’t even require cooking.

    The food industry is selling what they’re selling because they’re making a killing. If people stop buying it, they’d stop selling it.

    Its all about the choices you make.

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