The Hidden Costs of Fast Food

The food industry has come a long way. Gone are the days when you had to queue for hours just to get a bite of that juicy burger with a side of salty fries. With food becoming more accessible and quick by the year, there are a few factors we frequently overlook. Every day, fast food companies serve millions of people around the world; however, who pays for all of the raw materials that are used?
            Palm oil is found in roughly half of the products we see around us, including bread, ice cream, chocolate, soap, and so on. Palm oil is widely used in a variety of industries due to its versatility and ease of use, as it remains semi-solid even at room temperature. It has a long shelf-life because it does not oxidize easily and can also withstand high temperatures, allowing the food to remain extra crispy when frying. It is not surprising that the demand for palm oil has increased considerably as companies are increasing their use of the oil. Naturally, increased demand from companies such as Nestle, Yum! Brands, Unilever, and others have resulted in an increase in the number of trees that are cut down each year. As a result, palm oil has become one of the primary drivers of deforestation. Nestle alone had over 1,000 cases of deforestation per day in 2019. Yum! Brands that own restaurant chains, such as KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, refuse to disclose all of the details about the sources of their palm oil, implying that some of their sources are likely to contribute to deforestation in order to meet demand. Unilever admitted that they had indirectly purchased palm oil from the logging company PT Agra Bumi Niaga (ABN), which illegally cleared 336 hectares of rainforest between June 2016 and April 2017. Listed below are some of the major companies that contribute to deforestation:


The Swiss multinational corporation, founded in the 1860s, has grown to become one of the world’s largest corporations, ranking 33rd on the Forbes Global 2000 list of the world’s largest public companies in 2016. Food, drinks, cereals, coffee, tea, confectionery, dairy products, ice creams, frozen food, pet foods, and snacks are just some of the products manufactured by them. However, Nestle is no stranger to controversies and scandals. Be it the baby powder scandal in the ’90s or the more recent human rights violations, Nestle has repeatedly engaged in unethical practices. In 2010, they pledged to use only deforestation-free raw materials, however, that promise has now moved to 2025. As previously mentioned, they had over 1,000 cases of deforestation in 2019, moreover, they used 455,000 tons of palm oil that year. The details of the sources of their raw materials also remain ambiguous as only 62 percent can be traced to the plantations. The company also contains over 1,735 palm oil suppliers from over 24 countries, however, details about the quantity or locations were not disclosed. Nestle continues to make promises to better themselves and work towards sustainability, however, only strict demands and actions from the consumers can ensure faster results.


The American fast-food company that was founded by Richard and Maurice McDonald in the 1940s has now become one of the world’s largest restaurant chains. ​​The chain is so large that a new McDonald’s restaurant opens somewhere in the world every 14.5 hours. They serve approximately 68 million people on a daily basis, and such a large number necessitates a large number of raw materials. According to a  report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), McDonald’s sustainability plan shows “little commitment” since they were accused of large-scale deforestation in the Amazon rainforests in 2006, despite promises to reduce deforestation. Furthermore, in 2012 they used 103,336 metric ton of palm oil, however, 13 percent of that oil was not certified. Nonetheless, McDonald’s is taking small, incremental steps toward sustainability. Their efforts, such as the ban on plastic straws in Ireland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany, can be considered their first few steps toward a more sustainable future.


With over 33,833 stores in 80 different countries, Starbucks is the world’s largest coffeehouse chain. If you’re looking for a cup of coffee that caters to all your integrities such as the type of milk, added flavors, coffee beans, or the amount of whipped cream, Starbucks has you covered. Their wide range of coffee beans from multiple countries enables them to produce high-quality products. However, in recent years, they have come under fire for various reasons, including prohibiting their employees from wearing “Black Lives Matter”(BLM)-related clothing in 2020. In a letter to the corporation, a coalition of NGOs and corporations stated that “Starbucks is willing to do business with a company that clears forests, so long as it plants saplings elsewhere”. This implies that they do not have a 100% deforestation-free policy. They claimed in 2015 that 99 percent of their coffee is ethically verified; however, there is no information about their palm oil sources because they have not disclosed it. Starbucks uses palm oil in a variety of their products and claims to use the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified version; however, there is still no 100% guarantee that RSPO certificates ensure materials from deforestation-free sources. Therefore, there is no way to find out if they are keeping their promises.

The same report by UCS also stated that the Fast food industry was “by far the worst-scoring industry in the 2014 edition” and continued to “perform poorly in 2015”. On the bright side, many companies, such as Organic Valley, Tony’s Chocolonely, Chipotle, Lush, and others, are working towards a more sustainable future by being transparent with their policies and using deforestation-free resources. There will be a significant change in the level of deforestation if consumers reduce their use of brands that harm the environment and begin consuming eco-friendly products.


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