They’re not lovin’ it“I miss kimchi jjigae more than you can imagine,” Yun Gwang-young told a group of journalists just before taking his first bite of a “well-being burger” from Lotteria, Korea’s largest fast food chain. On the 31-year-old environmental activist’s bag was a pin with the words “Fast Food, Fast Death,” below a picture of a dancing hamburger.
By the time he met the press last month at Green Hospital in northern Seoul, Mr. Yun, a member of Citizens’ Movement for Environmental Justice, had spent a week eating nothing but food from Lotteria, McDonald’s and other fast-food chains, with the intent of publicizing the effects to his body.
If the idea sounds familiar, it’s because Mr. Yun got it from an American documentary called “Super Size Me,” in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate McDonald’s food exclusively for a month.
Mr. Yun hopes his publicized experiment, which ended this week, will win support for a ban on fast-food advertising on Korean television during children’s shows, and a law forcing fast-food chains in Korea to list their ingredients on their packaging, which they are not currently required to do. His group intends to make a videotape based on Mr. Yun’s experiment and circulate it to students and parents.
Mr. Yun thinks that if more people are aware of what’s in fast food, they’ll recognize its potential dangers. During his three weeks of fast-food dining, Mr. Yun’s doctors were reporting danger signs in his own body ―apparently not as extreme as those experienced by Mr. Spurlock, but enough that a doctor called a halt to the experiment.
According to his doctor at Green Hospital, Yang Gil-seung, Mr. Yun gained 12 pounds of body fat, and his total muscle weight declined. By the third week, according to his psychologist, Lee Jong-heon, Mr. Yun showed mild symptoms of depression and potential for an anxiety attack,though he said it was impossible to conclusively attribute that to his diet.
On Tuesday of this week, Dr. Yang at Green Hospital told Mr. Yun to stop the experiment, saying he was having mild symptoms of angina pectoris, which can be a precursor to a heart attack. Mr. Yun went off the fast-food diet Wednesday.
Mr. Yun also saw a doctor at a Chinese medical clinic in northern Seoul, Yang Tae-gyu, who said Mr. Yun had experienced symptoms, such as chest pain, loss of appetite, headaches and frequent bowel movements, that are common when the immune system deteriorates.
In “Super Size Me,” Mr. Spurlock stopped exercising in order to experience the sedentary lifestyle of the average American. Mr. Yun’s experiment differed here; he exercised twice as much as the average Korean. Dr. Yang suggested that the effects on his body would have been worse if he hadn’t. He also said it was possible that Mr. Yun’s results weren’t as dire as those seen by Mr. Spurlock ― who put on 25 pounds in 30 days ―because the average American’s diet is higher in fat and cholesterol than the average Korean’s.
Fast food is no longer just an American phenomenon, or a Western one. It’s steadily infiltrated Korea over the past 15 years, attracting customers with its speed, its convenience and what many younger Koreans still see as the glamour of the Western lifestyle. According to a report by the Korean Food and Drug Administration, about 300,000 Koreans eat fast food at least once a day, and 15,000 do so three times a day.
“We are expecting minimal social responsibility from multinational fast food companies,” said Mr. Yun. “For example, what are they going to do about the enormous amount of disposable containers thrown away, their labor environment, the overuse of antibiotics in their meat and the use of additives, which most of us have no clue what they are?”
Mr. Yun’s is not the only civic group in Korea to have taken up this cause. A group called Guarding the Next launched an anti-fast-food campaign last April; in August, the group picketed in front of a Jeong-dong McDonald’s, holding banners claiming that fast food leads to obesity and atopic skin in children.
In response, a McDonald’s in Myeongdong ―the first one to open in Korea, in 1988 ―held an “open day,” inviting customers into their kitchen for a day.
The company also released the calorie counts for some of their menu items, claiming that their meals were not much higher in calories than traditional Korean food. The company said a Big Mac has 590 calories, compared to 500 calories in a typical serving of bibimbap. (The figures released by the company did not address fat content, however.)
Oh Seong-gyu, a director of Citizens’ Movement for Environmental Justice, argues that fast food advertising’s effect on the culture, and children in particular, makes it an issue of corporate aggression, not consumer choice.
“Almost all children’s birthday parties nowadays are held in fast food restaurants,” Mr. Oh said. “Some parents even complain that their kids’ friends just won’t come to the parties if they are held in their homes. This says something about fast food marketing and what it has done to our children’s mentality.”
Mr. Yun said children he’s interviewed have told him that they visit fast food restaurants to get free toys, which he said demonstrates that the companies see children as the object of their marketing.
Some people say the anti-fast-food movement here has a nationalist tinge. They note that the civic groups seem to target McDonald’s, even though Lotteria has more stores.
“For a civic group, there is no better subject than fast food to make an issue of,” read one post at a Daum community Web site devoted to the anti fast-food movement. “There is a giant American industry, and the food is an issue that touches all citizens. But if McDonald’s moves out of Korea, will they also fight Lotteria and other Korean fast food chains as well?”
Anti-fast-food activists have seen some encouraging local developments recently. “Super Size Me” opened in Korean theaters Friday, and was screened earlier this month at the National Assembly; one lawmaker, the Uri Party’s Kim Seon-mi, said the film reminded her of “the importance of providing information about what we eat.”
It was also screened at a local environmental film festival and, in October, at the Pusan International Film Festival, where Mr. Spurlock was present and gave interviews to Korean media.
Two weeks ago, McDonald’s Korea announced it would cut the prices of some of its menu items by as much as 22 percent. A spokesperson for Citizens’ Movement for Environmental Justice speculated that its campaign might have had something to do with the decision, though a McDonald’s spokesman says it was a coincidence. (In the United States, McDonald’s dropped its “super-size” portions, including 64-ounce sodas, soon after “Super Size Me” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival; the company said there was no connection.)
A McDonald’s Korea spokeswoman, Yu Su-kyung, said in a letter that Mr. Spurlock’s film failed to accurately portray the factors that lead to obesity.
She said it was overeating, not the choice of McDonald’s, that led to his health problems. The film, however, depicts Mr. Spurlock as eating no more than the usual three meals a day during his McDonald’s experiment.
Mr. Yun said that, at any rate, weight gain is only one issue in the anti-fast food movement. “Our movement is not just about McDonald’s,” he said. “We want to facilitate the system so that consumers can make the right choice. And if the companies don’t do it voluntarily, we’ll have to encourage the government to make an extra push.”
by Park Soo-mee