McNormalizing the McNugget

Food media literacy is essential to health. Achieving both requires not just unpacking the ingredients of foods but also decoding how the messages about them are packaged and delivered for ideological consumption.

McDonald’s is masterful at (among other things) feeding public demand for “behind the scenes” information to dispel rumors about their food products while at the same time downplaying their potential hazards. The promotional video “What are McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets Made Of?” is McDonald’s own mythbusting counterpoint to the widely circulating rumor that they use infamous pink slime in their McNuggets and burgers.

In an effort “to become more transparent,” McDonald’s compensated Grant Imahara (an American electrical engineer, roboticist, and television host best known for his work on the television series MythBustersto take YouTube viewers on a tour of a Tyson chicken factory in Tennessee.  Amy Steward (“Principal Meat Scientist” for Tyson) educates Imahara as they tour one of five plants in the United States that make McNuggets. Take a look:

Some have criticized the video as a slick marketing move that fictionally portrays, at best, an exceptionally pristine processing plant and, at worst, something carefully staged for the cameras. The reality lies probably somewhere between the two.  A media literate viewer has the ability to separate observation from interpretation. In other words, what do we actually see in the video? And what do we infer from what we see in the video? In other words, how do we know what we know? A core question of media literacy education.

The video emphasizes the technical processes (clearly Imahara’s comfort zone as an engineer) yet he behaves more like a boy at an amusement park. Smiling with eyes twinkling, he gazes upon the rows of headless chicken corpses on conveyor posts (animal rights activists, beware) and exclaims: “Amy, this blows my mind! I mean, there are multiple lines of people making cuts on the chicken just like you would at home or just like a butcher would!” Gazing upon a jacuzzi-size mixing vat combining all the ingredients Imahara exclaims: “I can’t stop watching it. It’s like a lava lamp!” It may be worth noting at this point that a classic lava lamp consists of only 5 simple ingredients (water, mineral oil, paraffin wax, and carbon tetrachloride) whereas McNuggets allegedly contain upward of 40 ingredients.

The point of this video, however, isn’t the substance of the McNugget, it is in the steps taken to create an amusing, awe-some visual display to enamor the viewer with extraordinary spectacle while at the same time convincing the viewer that there is nothing out of the ordinary happening in this processing plant. Along those lines, perhaps the video should be re-titled, “The Making of the McNugget.” If only the Internet could transmit scent, then another facet of this story surely would be told: Would we smell something fishy? Even less transparent are the rows and rows of line workers covered in hairnets, scrubs, and donning very sharp knives—no doubt on their feet all day doing monotonous assembly-line work.

Granted, this video is much less disturbing as compared to the R-rated scenes depicted in  Fast Food Nation. Moreover, there is a simplistic Rube Goldberg-like quality in “What are McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets Made Of?” that overshadows the food adulteration committed to achieve the golden nugget at the end of this technological rainbow. It’s as far from a whole food as you can get.

It is worth noting that YouTube viewers commenting on this video confess to eating (more like hedonistically devouring) McNuggets regardless of their ingredients or nutritional composition, which raises additional concerns about human selection of food based primarily (and in this case, exclusively) according to flavor and texture. Preferential treatment, indeed. Surely celebrity chef Jamie Oliver made this point loud and clear when he demonstrated for a group of children  in the United States the gruesome process involved in making chicken nuggets. With this new knowledge of ingredient composition, the children remained unchanged in their voracious appetite for the chicken nugget. (Here is where I cue a re-mix of the “Star Spangled Banner” and McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It!” jingle).

But perhaps none of these food science issues are of concern to consumers. Afterall, industrial technology, sanitization, and assembly-line efficiency are as American as apple pie (which can also be found on the McDonald’s dollar menu, by the way). If McNuggets are not of national concern, then at least food media literacy should be of concern: What are the trade-offs of production and popularity of McNuggets? And are these trade-offs worth the environmental costs and the unintended health consequences that may result? (e.g., obesity, diabetes, heart disease). Something to chew on, America.

For more food media literacy insights, check out Dr. Vanessa Domine’s Fall 2017 undergraduate course (“Food Media Literacy”) through the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University.

Feeding Kids—One Step at a Time

This is a guest post by Hope Green. She is 9-years-old and in 4th grade. Her hobbies are DIY/crafting, Suzuki piano, song-writing, and writing fiction. 

The UNICEF Kid Power Band is technically a “fit bit” for kids. It’s a pedometer that tracks your steps, tells the time, and turns exercise into “lifesaving nutrition that UNICEF delivers to severely malnourished children around the world.” When you sync your band to your smartphone, it tells you where you are in your “mission” to feed undernourished kids, and how many  power points you have:

I love how the band is designed and how the app is designed. I sync my band every night to look at missions and how many packets I got in the day. Here’s what it looks like:

I like how when i forget to sync it some nights that when I sync it days later it syncs all the points I got from when I didn’t sync it days before.

If I could change anything with with the Kid Power Band I would make the battery last longer, so  I wouldn’t have to charge  so much. If I could change anything else with the Kid Power Band I’d  add to the watch for it to show how many kids you’ve fed. I love syncing the band and seeing how many points I got at the end of the day. I also like to get 10 to unlock missions and packets. Even though my legs hurt I’m eager to help kids in need.

I like how the app is designed that even if you have a small phone, you can download it and watch missions with special guests helping. Many celebrities like to help the children and UNICEF like Laura Marano, George Clooney, Madonna, Bridget Mendler, and Selena Gomez. Selena Gomez is the youngest UNICEF Ambassador.

Becoming healthy by walking, is for such a great cause. I also like that they go all the way to help kids in other countries just to save lives.

Food Media Literacy Course

New course elective offered Fall 2017 semester in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University.  Description: Food literacy requires much more than accruing facts or deciphering nutrition labels. Humans must actively engage across a wide variety of communication contexts and media platforms. Students in this course will develop and apply food media literacy skills to analyze, evaluate, create, and circulate knowledge about the histories, cultures, economies, and politics of food in the United States. Students will demonstrate their understanding of media languages, messages, audiences, and ownership through individualized and cross-platform media productions.

CMDA 320 Transmedia Storytelling is a recommended (although not mandatory) pre-requisite.

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