Tim Lobstein, Food Commission,
on McDonald's food and nutrition

Tim Lobstein is a member of the Food Commission, an Independent non-profit consumer organisation. He was an expert defence witness in the McLibel trial testifying on nutrition.

Tim Lobstein was interviewed in 1997 by One-Off Productions for their TV documentary, McLibel: Two Worlds Collide.

So could you start by describing the kinds of foods that McDonald's serve?

Yes, by and large when we looked at eight different meal combinations, ones that McDonald's themselves put in their leaflets, we found that they tended to be very high in fat and not at all high in essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals that we all need, so there's a great imbalance if you like between the sorts of food we need and the sorts of food that McDonald's are selling.

What is the effect on human health of this kind of food?

If you eat a diet that is predominantly the sorts of food that McDonald's is selling, you'll find yourself at higher risk of getting heart disease, cancers and various other dietary diseases. Their foods tend to be high in fats and salt and sugar and we're recommended not to eat so much food of that sort, so McDonald's is promoting a sort of diet that the World Health Organisation and health experts are asking us to cut back on.

But in their promotional literature that McDonald's give out to the public, one of the things they say is "Everytime you eat at McDonald's you will be eating good nutritious food." What do you think of that statement, and of McDonald's for saying it?

McDonald's promotes the sorts of food that encourage a poor diet

Unfortunately, McDonald's promotes the sorts of food that encourage a poor diet and the more you eat of these sorts of foods, the more likely you are to eat a high fat, high sugar, high salt diet of the sort that we're discouraged from eating by all the health experts.

So would you so far as to say they're lying to the public?

No. Hmm, I'd say it's misleading, it is misleading to the public to tell them that food that is high in fat or high in salt or high in sugar is healthy for you, it isn't. Foods of that sort encourage dietary diseases so you don't want them.

But surely the ingredients in the food are exactly the kind of things we do want to eat and like - potatoes and milk and bread, and so on.

It's very easy to promote food because it has wholesome ingredients in it such as bread or milk or meat, but if you then add a lot of fat or make it very salty or make it very sweet, you're then, if you like, adulterating that food and creating food that's much less healthy than the ingredients that you started with and unfortunately a lot of fast-food manufacturers do just that.

So how widespread now is this kind of diet?

We're seeing increasing evidence that these diets are eaten by forty to fifty per cent of young people once or twice a week. When we asked fast-food eaters in a survey in Peckam, we found that a third of them were eating fast-food meals of one sort of another every day. Now, that's a very high proportion.

Is there any particular groups of people or kinds of people who eat this diet more than others?

By and large we're seeing increasing evidence that it's younger people, it's lower income people, and it's now particularly school children who are eating more and more fast food meals. Now, school children in particular of course, you want them to eat healthy, nutritious food, you don't want them to be going for the fatty, sugary salty food that fast food stores sell.

If they are eating bad food at these early stages in life, what sort of problems might that lead to?

If you're a young child, and you start getting into the habit of eating fast food on a frequent basis then obviously you're opening up the risk that you will develop various dietary diseases, even in young adulthood, you might begin to show symptoms of cardiac disease, or various other dietary diseases, so it's very important that young children in particular do not start on the bad habits that fast food promotion can encourage.

... it's very important that young children in particular do not start on the bad habits that fast food promotion can encourage.

Do you have any data on how many meals McDonald's are currently serving a day?

It's about 50,000 a day at the moment.

So how would you respond to McDonald's classic argument to counter all of the bad nutrition that their food can be eaten as part of a balanced diet?

I think the whole argument by fast food stores that their meals perform part of a balanced diet can be very misleading.

Well, the notion of a balanced diet is very misleading, there isn't such a thing as a balanced diet, there's food that's rich in nutrients and low in fats and sugars and salt, and there's other food. Now, you can't sort of balance bad against good, if you eat a lot of bad food, yes it's then very important that you eat some good food, but if you eat a lot of good food there's absolutely no reason to eat bad, you don't need to balance good with bad, and the idea of balance, I mean, in some senses you could say that a piece of paper or a roll of sellotape or, or any object is part of a balanced diet because you can compensate by eating much better nutrition somewhere else, and I think the whole argument by fast food stores that their meals perform part of a balanced diet can be very misleading. The less you eat of them the better would be true, but you don't need to eat them at all. You can eat a healthy diet and not need to balance it with anything from a fast food store.

So, in your experience, do the people who eat at McDonald's tend to be people who eat a healthy diet or a poor diet?

By and large, the sorts of people who eat fast food frequently do not eat healthy food to balance it, so the idea that McDonald's or any other fast food stores' products can be part of a healthy balanced diet depends enormously on people eating healthy food elsewhere, and by and large they don't.

But assuming that they are eating all this other good food apart from McDonald's, how often would you say it would be okay to eat at McDonald's?

It's been suggested that if you just go to McDonald's once a year, well that's all right, or once a month, maybe that's all right. Well, the short answer to how frequently you can eat at a fast food restaurant is the less often the better. It's extremely difficult to eat a balanced diet in any fast food restaurant, McDonald's included, and I think the short answer to "Where do you get a healthy diet?" is "Not at a fast food store."

In what way have our diets changed over the last twenty years, and what role has McDonald's had in this?

There's increasing evidence that our diet does affect our health and causes various diseases, particularly heart disease and cancer, and over the last 20, 30, 40 years, certainly our diets have deteriorated in terms of the amount of fat - we're eating more of it - sugar, salt - we're eating a lot of that too, this is not good for us and I fear that the arrival of the big fast food chains has contributed greatly to a deterioration of that sort.

So how do McDonald's promotional techniques come in to the deterioration of our diets, for example in the way they're trying to promote food now - it's not a meal, it's a fun experience, and it's not about substance, it's about how much fun you have. Could you say anything about that?

Yes, fast food stores are very good at selling themselves, and what they're really selling is edible entertainment, you're finding good fun there, you're finding an enjoyable experience, they put hard seats there mind you so that you don't stay too long, but it's nice to take the weight of your feet, eat something and disappear. The quality of the food however is not really the quality that we would like.

As someone who works for the Food Commission, how did you feel when you were approached by Helen and Dave - these two anarchists - did you have any hesitations about helping them?

It's very much a trial of 20th century food production, and I want to see the results of that trial widely publicised because I think the way in which our food is produced has become increasingly important to the sorts of health that we enjoy, or are nowadays beginning to suffer.

I think this trial has shown us a lot about modern food policy.

How widespread is McDonald's food? Are they the leading fast food store?

That's my understanding.

So is there any way that a fast food organisation like McDonald's could produce nutritious food?

I would like to think it's possible that we can eat healthily and conveniently and even on the high street. I am worried at the size of companies that can dominate our diet and that the control over large numbers of people's diets is in the hands of just a few decision makers, but I think it is possible that fast food can bring the technology that can produce good, healthy fresh food to us at a convenient location on our high street. So, it's not impossible to imagine good fast food.

See also:

  • Tim Lobstein Witness Statement