Restaurant rating company Zagat promotes bad eating

By NICHOLAS DEPAUL | October 11, 2012

On Sept. 27, Zagat, the restaurant-rating company, released their 2012 fast food survey results. Yum.

Over 10,500 voters “weighed in” on a range of chain restaurants, designated as “large” (100-5,000 national locations) or “mega” (over 5,000). Voters reported an average of 9.4 meals per month at the chains.

Zagat was founded in 1979 by a couple (the Zagats) that wanted to collect restaurant ratings from their New York neighborhood and share them with friends. The company’s surveys now cover a range of national establishments: hotels, nightlife, golf courses, you name it. In 2011, Zagat was acquired by Internet giant Google for $200 million. This merger has the offshoot result of boosting a website’s search engine optimization if that site includes a Zagat rating (read: the website appears closer to the top of search results on Google).

The homegrown company that first existed to help neighbors get the best flavor and value is now hardly recognizable. People check Zagat ratings for a romantic dinner, or if they are on vacation in an unknown city. No one is looking for reviews of the closest fast food outlet. By issuing a yearly fast food rating survey, Zagat is shamefully promoting an industry that has only negative effects on society at large.

First, I’ll reiterate the point that each voter averaged 9.4 meals a month at fast food chains (under the national average, which is about 16 meals a month). By contacting someone and asking them to survey their favorite fast food restaurants, you are encouraging them to continue eating extremely unhealthy food. Only smoking kills more American’s each year than complications from obesity, an epidemic largely fueled by mass marketing aimed at children (youth obesity rates have tripled since 1970) and parents. These health complications often lead to costly medical treatments, which send individuals into debt and strain government funded health programs like Medicaid. In the long run, the people who eat large quantities of fast food, often on the premise that they can’t afford to eat healthier, end up spending far more money on health care.

The survey doesn’t just cover “quality” of food. It also includes categories like “décor/facilities” and “best healthy options.” Zagat surveys include “décor” so that you don’t end up taking your first date to a rat hole. Treating fast food interiors as sophisticated lends credence to the chains’ efforts to brand themselves and better attract color-manipulated children. And, lets be clear, there are no “healthy” options at any of these chains, only items that are healthier than their menu companions. Panera Bread, the soup n’ sandwich chain that took the top spot in the category, presents itself as a healthy alternative to burger n’ fries. According to nutritional information compiled by LiveStrong, their healthiest sandwich is the “Smoked Turkey Breast,” which still contains 100% and 30% of recommended daily sodium and fat, respectively. The worst offender on the menu is easily as unhealthy as a Big Mac.

The comment section on the survey website is a fantastic read: “The winners announced here are striking evidence of the ignorance of people when it comes to decent food…the [top] 4 alone are purveyors of the worst and most unhealthy food in the USA,”  “I get it… Zagat’s a review business — you would review cat food if enough people ate it,” “fast food…DOES objectively qualify as BAD FOOD,” “Dear god, what a pretentious bunch of douchebags commenting on this survey. So you don’t eat fast food and think it’s simply horrifying. Good for you. The millions of people… who enjoy the occasional guilty pleasure at a fast food restaurant would beg to differ. Fast food is fine…in moderation.”

This last commenter is not alone in expressing anger at the “snobbish” anti-fast food postings. But his or her argument doesn’t hold up. Clearly, the “millions of people” are not enjoying an “occasional” guilty pleasure; they are eating fast food all the time, four times a week on average nationally. And the food is not even OK in moderation. The animals who’s bodies are consumed are pumped full of antibiotics and hormones that negatively affect humans. The same goes for the pesticides used on plant products. Not to mention the fossil fuels used in production or the animal abuse concerns. Or the economic strain unhealthy, obese people generate.

Zagat’s (and thus Google’s) decision to publish this survey is disheartening and despicable. The results do nothing good for consumers and rather provide free advertising to the chains. Those who do not eat fast food are not going to be convinced by this survey, and are not the target audience. Who is? The people who gorge themselves on processed sludge all day?

Or their children, who don’t know any better.

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