I write this article after just finishing my re-watch of the movie The Founder, which tells the story of how Ray Kroc effectively hijacked the McDonald’s company from its original founders and turned it into the empire that it is today. I thoroughly enjoy it, and would highly recommend everyone watch it on Netflix, but I digress.
When people in foreign countries think of America, typically one of the first things they picture is the iconic McDonald’s golden arches, and they’re not wrong to do so. From the 1960s to the present day, fast food has become one of the most easily identifiable symbols of American culture, but that doesn’t mean the industry is restricted to only the United States. American fast-food companies have been rapidly expanding their operations worldwide, capitalizing on the high demand for cheap and tasty food that can be available in 30 seconds. One of the most interesting statistics I saw when researching this topic was that most of the fast-food brands we know have more restaurants internationally than in the United States, a ratio that will only become more drastic as time progresses.
This has consequences, both positive and negative in nature, for the countries that find themselves being taken over by fast food like 60s America. The main selling point that everyone can agree on is that fast food is cheap. Really cheap. People in all of these countries – especially less economically stable places – can get access to more food for cheaper prices than before, which is greatly appreciated.
But food being this cheap is a massive double-edged sword. The most obvious consequence of this is that fast food is notoriously unhealthy. The same health issues that have plagued America since fast food exploded in popularity are beginning to occur in other countries as well. The uptick in people eating fast food in foreign countries is causing a parallel increase in health issues like obesity and diabetes.
The issue of fast food causing health problems is an interesting one, but it’s probably the most well-known fact about it; you’ve probably heard enough about it from news channels you listen to, or just your parents! Another side of that coin that I’ve heard talked about significantly less is how the presence of fast food erodes the local culture of the countries it establishes its presence. We’ve already established that fast food is very cheap, which can be good, but this sets the stage for local food cultures to simply be out-competed by American companies. With fast food companies entering the market in countries across the world, they’re taking priority over local mom-and-pop food shops and corner stores, replacing their more authentic cuisine with cheeseburgers and Chicken McNuggets.
My grandparents are two first-generation immigrants from Guatemala, a small country in Central America, they travel frequently to their home country to visit their family that’s still there, and they love to tell stories. One of the things that made me think when I was talking to my grandfather, or Abuelo, was when he said that Guatemala is much more like America today than it did when he was a kid. One of the reasons this has happened is that American fast-food restaurants serving American fast food are increasingly undercutting local restaurants in pricing and forcing them out of business. Food is a massive part of the culture, and when American food chains erode local food, it also erodes local culture. Fast-food companies do recognize this and try and patch it over with measures like making fast food variants of local foods, but it’s still a far cry from the real thing.
This Americanization of food culture across the world has created some interesting situations. In Japan, only one percent of the population is Christian, but every Christmas eve, it’s a common tradition for them to go and receive their family dinner from KFC. This peculiarity was the result of an incredibly effective marketing campaign on the part of KFC (a company which, at this point, has 3/4ths of its restaurants outside of the US). In Japan, Santa is often just depicted as Colonel Sanders. Even outside of Christmas, KFC is very popular in Japan. This seems pretty amusing to us Americans, but it’s a relevant example of how a nation’s food culture can start to be encroached upon by America’s cheap food and strong advertising.
Most people in foreign countries will still, of course, choose their own cuisine over American fast-food chains, but as these giants expand to cover more surface area, many people in developing countries find themselves faced with the issue of spending less precious money on American food versus their own. Currently, all we can do is watch as people in countries across the world make a choice that, in the eyes of just one person, is as trivial as where they’re going to eat tonight. But as it all builds up and we look at the big picture, we find ourselves faced with a choice much grander in scale, that will change the landscape of the international food industry entirely: cost, or culture?