McNugget Backlash: Is Fast Food on the Run from Jamie Oliver?

Streetwise British chef Jamie Oliver is shaking up America's ideas of what foods are worth eating and feeding to schoolkids with his Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution reality TV show set in one of the country's unhealthiest cities.
Streetwise British chef Jamie Oliver is shaking up America's ideas of what foods are worth eating and feeding to schoolkids with his Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution reality TV show set in one of the country's unhealthiest cities.

The experiment that TV chef and raconteur Jamie Oliver says "always works" to turn kids off processed food failed in Huntington, W.Va., where the obesity rate is above the national average.

When he showed children how chicken nuggets are made -- grinding up the least desirable parts of a bird, gloppily straining out the bones, and adding flavorings and fillers -- he expected them to refuse to eat them. Instead, after having cried "ewww!" and "gross!" they each asked for a patty, answering his bewilderment with: "We're hungry!"

While the stunt missed the mark on his Food Revolution TV show, it hit home for many kids and parents. One blog post on the topic , in which the author said her kids had watched and decided never to eat a chicken nugget again, was still the most popular post on the site days later.

People Are Talking

Oliver is getting people talking -- and changing habits. An informal poll of my Twitter followers found that about half were put off chicken nuggets for good, and the rest had previously rejected them. A friend who edits a parenting magazine said she had "told dozens of people" how the unappealing ingredients made her "queasy." Another friend decided to forgo her usual annual spring treat of McDonald's (MCD) chicken McNuggets, solely because she and her kids watched Oliver squish raw chicken through a strainer. A long screed from a San Diego writer told how her family was giving up chicken nuggets, too.

Though part of Oliver's stunt was pure fiction -- "Thankfully, chicken nuggets in this country are not made this way," he clarified before heading off to cleave a carcass into pieces -- it's part of a wider movement that's calling out processed fake food by name and calling for it to be eliminated from children's diets. One target is the cheap, low-quality fare in fast food restaurants. Another is the lunches sold, and subsidized with tax dollars for low-income families, in school cafeterias.

And then there are grocery stores, where companies like Tyson Foods (TSN) and Foster Farms sell chicken nuggets and General Mills (GIS) sells the Totino's pizzas that formerly stocked the freezer of Oliver's adopted obese family, the Edwardses. If you haven't seen the first episode of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, go to Hulu and move the show timer to 23:00; you'll see the family's matriarch open her freezer to reveal two dozen frozen Party Pizzas.

A Deadly Diet?

As Oliver keeps telling the Edwards family and others, this nutritionally bereft food -- what food writer Michael Pollan calles "edible, food-like substances" -- is killing us.

Oliver's goal echoes that of other food celebrities, including Pollan and chef Alice Waters: He wants us, and especially our children, to eat fresh, seasonal food we cook ourselves from scratch. But while Waters and Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, reach a limited audience that already believes in paying for real food and has the patience to read wonky books about it, Oliver has vaulted over the upper-middle classes and landed squarely in the midst of Friday-night reality TV.

And everyone, even moms whose freezers are already stocked with chicken nuggets and corn dogs and Party Pizzas, is watching. Oliver never names the foes he's tilting against with all his celebrity might, but it is McDonald's and Tyson's and General Foods and a host of other processed food companies that stand to lose in this epic battle.

I asked McDonald's to comment on Oliver's trick with the nuggets, and I got this terse response: "I've seen the program and this has nothing to do with McDonald's. It's not representative of our standards or any product we serve in our restaurants." McDonald's and other junk food producers are missing the point.

But We're Hungry!

Oliver's stunt didn't accurately reflect how McDonald's McNuggets are made (with all breast meat). But it did accurately reflect children's attitudes toward food: "We like the stuff that's familiar even if it's completely terrible for us and seems pretty disgusting. We're hungry!"

It reflected the fact that what goes into the food is there for the manufacturer's benefit -- the fillers, the flavorings, the preservatives, the bits and pieces of meat that perhaps can't be served in another form -- and not for the consumer's health.

McDonald's list of ingredients for chicken nuggets doesn't include "bone" and "tendon" and "ewwy gooey squishy stuff," but it isn't exactly comforting. After chicken breast meat comes "water, food starch-modified, salt, seasoning (autolyzed yeast extract, salt, wheat starch, dextrose, citric acid, rosemary), sodium phosphates, seasoning (canola oil, mono- and diglycerides, extractives of rosemary). Battered and breaded with: enriched flour, starch-modified, salt...," plus: "Dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent."

I don't know what that is, but I guarantee it isn't in the food I cook for my family.

Thinking About Food

Making us think about what's going into our beloved convenience food is, in the end, Oliver's goal. Thinking about the fact that it's killing us is a theme that appears in more and more headlines. This could mark the beginning of a real backlash against fast food far bigger than the one that followed the film Supersize Me, because this food revolution is getting through to junk food makers' target market: Children.

McDonald's, Tyson's, General Mills and the other makers of erzatz food that figures heavily in the diet of the Edwards family in Huntington, W.Va., should pay attention. It's an open secret that they're manufacturing a diet that has become a health-care crisis. Pollan estimates that half of the $2.5 trillion in U.S. health-care costs "is going to treat preventable, chronic diseases linked to diet."

And America grows less and less inclined to believe the disclaimer, "This is not representative of the food we serve."