The meanings of fast food consumption

The golden arches, Colonel Sanders…The meaning of these fast food icons has been changing since they first appeared about five decades ago. In the beginning, fast foods (or quick-service restaurants) were linked with modernization – as these establishments are tied, through their convenient drive-through windows, to the popularization of the car. Nowadays, eating from these restaurants increasingly carry a stigma tied to obesity and low-income communities. Still, globally, this is not always the case. “Fast food” companies are now transnational, gaining the hearts, palates and increasing waistlines worldwide.



San Salvador

A main road in San Salvador.

In Latin America, fast foods chains have spread quickly, even making adjustments to the local palate and food customs. A visit to any Latin American city will reveal that fast foods are now part of the local foodscapes, not only in main cities, but increasingly in peri-urban areas, making these establishments accessible for all.

While the foodscapes are becoming more and more homogeneous, the meanings attached to the consumption of these foods have yet to change. Eating a burger underneath the golden arches or a fried chicken from the Colonel has a special meaning. For many in these developing economies, being able to afford these foods is a sign of status. Foods that in the US are regarded as time-saving, convenience foods are transformed into “special occasion meals”. I have encountered working in Central America. Anecdotes recounted stories of people selling their hens (the free roaming, happy chickens we pay so much money to eat in the US) to buy a fried chicken meal at a popular Guatemalan transnational chain.

As noted by a Mexico-based chef and slow-food enthusiast, “Fast food is regarded in Mexico as a sign of status, not as much with the wealthy as with the middle class” (see more here). Moreover, the fast food experience in different in these contexts, as seen in the excerpt below:

“In Guatemala, one may find “fancy” or higher-end restaurants in typically touristic areas such as Antigua or Lake Atitlán, but for the average Guatemalan, a high-end restaurant worth visiting would be one like Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, or even Taco Bell. There is a certain prestige that these restaurants possess for being American and, moreover, their treatment of customers is much the same as that of formal, higher-end restaurants in the United States. One waits in line to be seated, and then has a server come and take their order and cater to their needs throughout their stay. They also deliver. The meals’ presentation is still very much the same, however: pizza in a box, or the typical McDonald’s or Taco Bell food tray. It is the customer experience and treatment that is different.” – William Ramirez, “Segregated Communities, Segregated Litter“, CLACS Blog, 07/15/15.

Stories like this point to the prevailing view of fast foods as “aspirational”. This translates, at times inevitably, to the high consumption of these foods when increasing income or changing geographies allow. The accounts from my fieldwork in El Salvador attests to this, as well as informal conversations with immigrants coming to the US from similar communities. When people migrate to the US, the ready access to these foods is a welcomed novelty – at more accessible prices.

The different meanings of fast food, and how these translate to eating patterns among individual living in transitioning communities, including immigrant US populations, is an important often overlooked issue for nutrition and public health interventions. Observations like these should motivate us to take a look at migration histories and their influence in eating and health behaviors, moving beyond “acculturation” to a more holistic and interdisciplinary view of food choices and eating patterns.