Eat, drink and be very afraid. As the psychological fallout from the recent Wendy’s debacle proves, being frightened of our food is the American way. Does it really have to be like this?
By Stett Holbrook
AMERICANS are afraid to eat. Sitting down to dinner makes us anxious, confused and downright scared. We’re afraid of food contamination. We’re frightened by germs. We fear unseen hands tampering with what we eat. Even though the Wendy’s finger-in-the-chili incident has been exposed as a likely fraud, it tapped into deep-seated food fears.

We’re also afraid of getting fat. Instead of eating for pleasure, we count calories and are ridden with guilt after we eat. Because of constantly changing, often conflicting health guidelines and a blitz of advertising, we worry we’re not eating the right foods or that we’re missing out on the latest life-extending “miracle food.” Depending on the fad diet du jour, we run from fats, carbohydrates and sugar. In short, in spite of America’s affluence and high food safety standards, we have what writer Michael Pollan calls a “national eating disorder.”
Our love-hate relationship with fast food holds a special place in our catalog of food fears. To be sure, there are plenty of rational reasons to be concerned about the Whoppers and Quarter Pounders we eat. Anyone who has read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation or seen Morgan Spurlock’s film Super Size Me knows that the industry is fraught with peril for diners and employees alike.
Although rare, unappetizing foreign bodies do turn up in fast food. A $17.5 million lawsuit stemming from a 9-year-old girl who bit down on a rat head between the buns of her Big Mac is winding through Canadian courts. A few weeks after the Wendy’s incident, a man sued the owner of an Arby’s restaurant in Ohio, claiming he found a 3/4-inch slice of human skin in his chicken sandwich. And last month a North Carolina man found a severed finger in his frozen custard.
In addition to these recent cases, fast food contamination from E. coli, listeria and salmonella and other bacteria is well known. But finding human body parts, rodent pieces or deadly bacteria in fast food is still quite rare, yet the morbid fascination with this uniquely American meal continues. Why does fast food push so many buttons?
“I think we’re biologically hard-wired to have these food aversions,” says Carol Nemeroff, assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University. As omnivores, humans are compelled to eat a number of different foods. We cannot live by bread alone–especially at long as Atkins mania lives. But an omnivorous diet is fraught with danger, she says. Some foods are dangerous. From a biological point of view it makes sense to be cautious of what we eat. It’s called the “omnivore’s dilemma.”
Just like fellow omnivores the rat and the cockroach, we humans practice “one trial taste aversion” as a survival mechanism. If we try something new and get sick, chance are we won’t eat it again. With fast food, stories about a hapless diner biting down on a human body part or a rat head may serve as a “trial” by proxy, turning us off from the food in question even though we’ve had no direct contact with it, says Nemeroff.
Disgusted and No Longer Trusted
In humans, these aversions are related to potent feelings of disgust. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin, with whom Nemeroff studied and collaborated, is an expert on disgust as it relates to food (there’s an expert for everything, isn’t there?). He’s developed theories about disgust’s power of “magic contagion.”
According to his theory, disgust is contagious. Once something unsavory comes in contact with something perceived clean or safe, that inoffensive item is forever, “magically,” contaminated. Kinda like cooties. In studies Rozin conducted, he found people would not eat a cookie that had come in contact with a sterilized cockroach even though it posed no risk. The cockroach had “infected” the cookie. And later when cookies untouched by cockroaches were offered, people still avoided them.
Wendy’s reportedly lost $2.5 million in the Bay Area following the now infamous finger caper. The story quickly became fodder for late-night television jokes, playing into a long-running national narrative about the dangers lurking within fast food. Before the scam allegations surfaced, the severed finger riveted public attention because of its gross-out factor and the intrigue behind it. But there were deeper things going on as well.
In spite of the free Frosties that Wendy’s recently passed out to win back customers and alleged finger chomper Anna Ayala’s imprisonment on attempted grand theft and other charges, Wendy’s may have difficulty recovering from the finger because of lingering feelings of disgust. The finger has “touched” Wendy’s and possibly transferred the disgust to the restaurant chain.
“It’s going to be very difficult for that to go away,” Nemeroff says. “[Disgust] is very powerful.”
In Sociology, No One Can Hear You Scream
Brian Wansink is the John S. Dyson professor of marketing, applied economics and nutritional science at Cornell University. He directs the school’s Food and Brand Lab, a multidisciplinary research institute that tracks consumer behavior as it relates to food. For him, our fast food anxieties stem from the fear of what food will do to us once we eat it. The movie Alien provides the perfect analogy, he says.
“The creature lays an egg in an unknowing person simply to have it hatch–when else–at dinnertime and burst through his stomach,” he says. “This captures many of the elements of why fear of food and contamination is so strong. To kill the germs–the alien eggs, cockroach eggs, germs, tapeworm, living finger–requires the host to be killed also. Effectively, we have no control of what is going on in us once the food has been eaten.”
While fast food seldom kills people, it can make us fat and unhealthy and alter perceptions we have of ourselves. What makes fast food different from food we prepare ourselves or eat at home is the “veil of uncertainty” that surrounds it. Rather than fear of what food can do to us, Leon Rappoport, professor emeritus of psychology at Kansas State University and the author of How We Eat: Appetite, Culture and the Psychology of Food, says fast food fears are explained in part by what harm we perceive others may do to our food. Fast food’s grip on the popular imagination is rooted in our mistrust of food service workers, socially “marginal” groups that include teenagers, recent immigrants and the poor.
“Should we trust our health to very low paid marginal workers, who for all we know may be pissed off or alienated enough to not bother about hand washing and other food safety practices?” he asks rhetorically.
Eating on the Couch
Rappoport takes our relationship with fast food and food in general onto the therapist’s couch. From a psychological point of view, we tend to view anything cheap like fast food as unlikely to be good for us and think that “anything pleasurable and tasty must be a bit immoral and therefore may stimulate guilt feelings.”
We’re particularly obsessed with control of our bodies, says Janet Chrzn, a nutritional anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania. We have very firm boundaries about what can touch or enter our bodies and penalties for violating those boundaries. This is particularly true with food, she says.
To add to our anxiety, we’re beset with changing nutritional and dietary guidelines that make eating a confusing and frustrating act–and yet we’re eternally optimistic that eating the “right” food will offer the cure for what ails us.
Glossy women’s magazines are filled with half-baked advice on the latest “superfoods” like blueberries, pomegranates and chocolate and their purported benefits, the effect of which teaches people to focus on eating individual ingredients rather than the food itself.
“Americans are barraged with this information, much of which turns out to be wrong,” she says.
A case in point is the Centers for Disease Control’s recent about-face on obesity. For years that agency said being overweight increased your chance for death. In what is sure to be a boost to the fast food industry, the CDC now says people who are slightly overweight have a lower instance of mortality than those of normal weight. Go figure.
Cooking Class Issues
As for fast food, she says our anxieties come from two directions: We fear what the food will do to us–make us fat, unhealthy, unsophisticated–and what is being done to the food itself: it is tampered with, contaminated by dirty hands, insects, rats, etc. In many people’s minds, the two are interconnected. The fear of the foreign and foreigners is particularly strong, she says.
“The cultural equivalent to the [Wendy’s] finger are all those New Yorker cartoons in which someone says, ‘Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup,'” she says. In most instances, she says the waiter is depicted as a snooty Frenchman, a foreign, vaguely intimidating figure to the American diner who fears someone very different from him has been messing with his food.
She points out that many of our negative perceptions about fast food are largely class based. It’s the educated, the more affluent who worry most about what they’re eating. The poor certainly know that a diet of french fries, Egg McMuffins and fried chicken isn’t healthy and makes them feel bad, but the food is cheap and in low-income neighborhoods often the only restaurant food available.
Chrzn works with black, low-income youth in west Philadelphia and tries to get the kids to broaden their culinary horizons and eat better. But for many residents of poor areas, being picky about their food is a luxury even though they know what they’re eating is unhealthful.
“They get worked up for a little while and then go back to eating that food,” she says.
Guilt by Association
Fast food has developed a particular negative connotation, she says. In her research, she conducts word association games in which participants are asked to free-associate with the term fast food. The responses she gets are telling. Fat. Bad. Out of shape. Poor.
In spite of its enduring popularity, fast food in America has come to be associated with the lower classes and minorities, she says. The dark humor and urban myths that surround all those burgers and fries gone wrong help ease our discomfort with this uniquely American food, she says.
“People tell jokes about things they are uncomfortable with,” she says. Historians are quick to note that our food anxieties are nothing new. After all, Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation is really an update of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a classic critique of the U.S. meat industry.
“For me it’s the same old thing,” says Gabriella Petrick, a Ph.D. candidate in American history and the history of technology at the University of Delaware. “It goes back to the 19th century.”
Specifically, after the Civil War, mass production of food, as well as increasing immigration and changing lifestyles, distanced the American public from the sources of their food. That disconnect created a profound anxiety about the health and safety of the food we eat, says Petrick.
She’s researching the fear of canned foods that pervaded America at the turn of the 20th century. Because canning technology was new, many cans were tainted with botulism and scared the public from this modern form of food. But another factor was that not only couldn’t you see inside the cans, the containers came from unseen factories, giving rise to concerns about what was being done to the food.
Our Refined Upbringing
Some historians trace this fear back to our Puritan roots and the cultural values of cleanliness, purity and the lily white. It’s interesting to note that highly refined products like white sugar, white flour and white bread were all early 20th century “advances” rooted in cultural perceptions of “good” and “bad” food. White food was the food of the affluent and the urbane and more traditional, unprocessed, homegrown the food of the lower classes. Now it’s reversed. It’s the well-to-do who seek out whole wheat bread, brown rice and organic foods while Wonder Bread, white sugar and other refined products are the food of the poor.
Today, few Americans have any contact with the farm animals they eat and the rise of fast food and convenience food means fewer Americans cook their own meals, adding to the disconnect with the source of their food, she says. “Who knows how to raise chickens anymore?” she says. “There are people who just don’t know how to cook.”
Even though the food we eat today is infinitely safer than that of the 19th century, these fears continue. Petrick sees our food obsession as a result of economic privilege. You don’t have many anorexics or fad dieters in El Salvador or Sri Lanka.
“We can afford to be really particular about the food we eat,” she says. Arizona State’s Nemeroff describes the condition as the “worried well.” Because we are so affluent and have such high health standards compared to most people in the world, we have the luxury to worry about what we eat. We don’t have to worry about survival so we worry about being thin and looking good or whether we’re getting enough omega-3 fatty acids or bioflavonoids of whatever nutrient happens to be in vogue at the moment. And the food and diet industry thrives on playing to our fears.
“Trying to get people to diet whether they need it or not is very profitable,” she says.
We’re Lovin’ It
Of course all this teeth gnashing over fast food begs the question: why do we eat it? It’s cheap and masterfully marketed, that’s part of the answer. The appeal of sugar, fat and fried foods is well known. But the industry seems to be undergoing a significant shift in response to concerns about obesity, transfats, mad cow disease and other health issues. Chicken products are on the rise in the fast food restaurants, as are salads. It remains to be seen how many diners order a salad in an attempt to balance out the bacon cheese burger and fries they just ate.
But the solution to healthier, less anxious eating isn’t fast food salads. It’s what you already know. Eat more vegetables. Eat in moderation. Exercise. And eat with other people. Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters has been a vocal critic of the demise of the family meal. Eating alone over the sink, at your desk or in your car is a uniquely American habit. Not only is eating enhanced when it’s treated as a pleasurable act, it’s even more enjoyable in the company of others. You eat slower when you’re talking over the dinner table and are less likely to eat a third slice of cake when there are others around.
While industrialized agriculture and ignorance about the sources of our food are often touted as reasons for our state of culinary alienation, that doesn’t mean we should return to some agrarian utopia where everyone churns their own butter and raises their own livestock, says Amy Bentley, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health New York University.
“We are products of the Industrial Revolution,” she says, and that’s not such a bad thing. Before the rise of mass production and distribution a lot of people went hungry and the food they ate was very monotonous.
“We can’t escape the real positive elements the Industrial Revolution has brought to our food supply,” she says.
Rather than relinquishing industrial food to “the realm of unhealthy or unappetizing food,” she’d like to see a push for high-quality, mass-produced food.
She says the answer to less food anxiety is improving the quality of food and people’s connection to it across a wider segment of society by creating more school garden programs, establishing farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods and getting the federal government on board by redirecting costly agriculture subsidies away from large commodity growers to smaller, local farms.
“These are just baby steps but they have to be done,” she says. Because food anxiety crosses social and economic boundaries, Chrzn says we need food education “across the board,” not just in inner city neighborhoods but in leafy suburbs as well. Her answer is to make fresh, local food available in an “unfreighted manner,” free of political or moral dogma. Let the food speak for itself, she says.
“Once people start tasting that, they really want more,” she says. “It really tastes different.”