As diet trends shift, can fast food corporate giants adapt to survive?

The diets of millions of people around the world are heavily made up of fast food produced by a handful of corporate behemoths. Burgers, pizzas and fried chicken account for almost half of all food consumed in the world. But a business model that has been sustained for so long seems challenging to continue in an ever-shifting global desire to eat ‘clean’.

The concept of ready-cooked food for sale is closely connected with urban developments. Homes in emerging cities often lacked adequate space or proper food preparation accouterments. Additionally, procuring cooking fuel could cost as much as purchased produce.

Frying foods in vats of searing oil proved as dangerous as it was expensive, and homeowners feared that a rogue cooking fire “might easily conflagrate an entire neighborhood”. Thus, urbanites were encouraged to purchase pre-prepared meats or starches, such as bread or noodles, whenever possible. In Ancient Rome, cities had street stands – a large counter with a receptacle in the middle from which food or drink would have been served.

It was during post-WWII American economic boom that Americans began to spend more and buy more as the economy boomed and a culture of consumerism bloomed. As a result of this new desire to have it all, coupled with the strides made by women while the men were away, both members of the household began to work outside the home.

Eating out, which had previously been considered a luxury, became a common occurrence, and then a necessity.

Workers, and working families, needed quick service and inexpensive food for both lunch and dinner. This need is what drove the phenomenal success of the early fast food giants, which catered to the family on the go. Fast food became an easy option for a busy family, as is the case for many families today.

The United States has the largest fast food industry in the world, and American fast food restaurants are located in over 100 countries. Approximately 4.7 million U.S. workers are employed in the areas of food preparation and food servicing, including fast food in the USA. Worries of an obesity epidemic and its related illnesses have inspired many local government officials in the United States to propose to limit or regulate fast-food restaurants.

Yet, US adults are unwilling to change their fast food consumption even in the face of rising costs and unemployment characterized by the great recession, suggesting an inelastic demand. However, some areas are more affected than others. In Los Angeles County, for example, about 45% of the restaurants in South Central Los Angeles are fast-food chains or restaurants with minimal seating. By comparison, only 16% of those on the Westside are such restaurants.