Ever wondered about the children who accompany football players to the field before every kick-off in the FIFA World Cup? In case you have missed them, switch on your TV five minutes before the final between France and Croatia in Moscow on Sunday, and you will see tiny-tots walking hand-in-hand with the players as they troop out on the field.
Are they all Russians? No, a percentage of them are children from around the world, specially selected for the all-too-familiar protocol before every FIFA match.
Aged between six and 10, the children were chosen for the World Cup duties through the McDonald's Player Escorts Programme, which the popular global fast food chain has been running with FIFA since 2002. The avowed motive of the programme is to inculcate passion among the children for the sport and promote a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
Eat, play and be healthy " that's the message McDonald's wants to convey. And therein lies the irony. Around the world, for nearly two decades, medical and dietary experts have flagged fast-food for its inimical impact on health. It contains sugar, salt and fat far in excess of what a human body requires, leading to debilitating conditions such as obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.
McDonald's not only falls in the category of fast food, but is also regarded as the pioneer of a culture that brought into vogue fast-to-cook, quick-to-serve delicious food, from crispy French fries to juicy burgers. It altered America's food culture, as so many academic studies have shown, to enable its people to cope with the urban lifestyle, which locks them in a perpetual race against the clock.
The health hazards of fast food is an issue for parents, not their children, certainly not those chosen through the McDonald's Player Escorts Programme to perform World Cup duties. It would presumably not bother all those who participated in the programme but were simply unlucky to make it to Russia.
For the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, McDonald's sponsored 1,408 children to do the World Cup duties " they spent four nights and five days there with a guardian or parent, their tickets and stay paid for. In this year's tournament, the Player Escorts Programme sent 135 children to Russia from around the world, the remaining 1,273 were from Russia.
The selection requires a slice of luck as big as McDonald's signature Big Mac burger. In the United States, for instance, children between 6-10 years of age were required to upload their own special celebration handshake by tagging McDonald's on either Twitter or Instagram. Those whose entries were judged to be in the top five flew to Russia.
The Escorts Programme for the 2018 FIFA World Cup did not run in India, but it did four years ago, at McDonald's outlets in north India and east India, of which the franchise is Connaught Plaza Restaurants Pvt Ltd. It is currently engaged in litigation with the parent company. The selection procedure required children to purchase a McDonald's Happy Meal, call a dedicated number, punch in the code received with the meal bought, and answer a FIFA-related question. Those who provided the right reply qualified for a lucky draw.
Six-year-old Abhiraj Singh was among the seven Indian children who won a trip to Sao Paulo, Brazil. "Getting a chance to walk on to the pitch with the world's best teams and players is just amazing¦ I am very lucky. Thank you McDonald's for this incredible opportunity," he had gushed to the media.
For a six-year-old to use the word incredible is indeed incredible. Abhiraj must have been smart. But it is hard to tell whether he had been smart enough to read the ever-growing literature on the link between health and fast food. The picture is especially alarming, for most fast food, often served with drinks and sides, is high on carbohydrates, often referred to in popular parlance as "carbs". When consumed, the digestive system breaks down carbs into glucose causing a spike in the blood sugar. This increase stimulates the pancreas to release insulin, which carries the sugar to cells where it is converted into energy. Excess of sugar, not required for immediate energy needs, is stored.
Eating fast food often leads to frequent releases of insulin to maintain the body's sugar balance. Over time, the consumer runs the risk of becoming obese, developing insulin resistance and Type 2 Diabetes, which is a condition in which the body falters in absorbing glucose from the blood stream.
It is the combination of fat, sugar, and sodium (salt) in high proportion that makes fast food yummy. But excess salt is inimical to those with high blood pressure. Fast food is addictive, it is said, because it releases dopamine that induces pleasure in humans. It leads to compulsive eating. So children addicted to, say, burgers might face a problem tackling blood pressure in later years.
Sugar, it is said, is the new tobacco. Healthline issued a post, which was reviewed by medical practitioners, that said, "The American Heart Association suggests only eating 100 to 150 calories of added sugar per day. That's about six to nine teaspoons. Many fast-food drinks alone hold well over 12 ounces. A 12-ounce can of soda contains eight teaspoons of sugar. That equals 130 calories, 39 grams of sugar, and nothing else."
In a piece for The Washington Post early this year, dietitian Christy Brissette wrote, "Eating a poor quality diet high in junk food is linked to a higher risk of obesity, depression, digestive issues (constipation, for instance), heart disease, Type 2 Disease, cancer, and early death."
Brissette might seem an alarmist except that she cites a plethora of studies to bolster her assertion. The rising tide of criticism against fast food has had an impact " it has turned the millennial conscious of the need to eat healthy. It has been a compelling factor behind the decline in footfalls at fast-food outlets. Conscious of the changing food culture, they have tried to rejig their menu, and reduce salt and sugar through such measures such as shrinking the size of French fries.
To its credit, however, McDonald's, after pioneering the fast-food culture, is trying to put healthier food on its menu. For instance, in the US, McDonald's replaced margarine with butter. It stopped selling chickens raised with antibiotics. By June 2018, McDonald's Happy Meals in the US were supposed to contain, after reduction, less than 600 calories and most items to have less than 650 milligrams of salt.
Now chew these figures: The Planning Commission of India, before it was renamed, had laid down that that the calorie intake for the average Indian should be 2,400 calories, meaning one McDonald's Happy Meal would meet one-fourth of the calorie requirement of the average Indian. But the problem is that fast food is high in calories because of sugar and fat, not nutrients.
In India, the official spokesperson of Hardcastle Restaurants Pvt Ltd, master franchise for McDonald's restaurants in the West and South, claimed to have reduced sodium across a range of products by 20 percent. Oil content in mayonnaise has been reduced by 40 percent, thereby bringing down fat content by 25 percent; its patties are 100 percent preservative-free; the fiber content has been increased by 20-25 percent, and its wraps are full grain instead of being made with refined flour.
However, these changes only reduce but do-not eliminate, the health risk fast food poses. Most experts are appreciative and welcoming of these incremental changes. But can McDonald's or any fast-food chain turn healthy and still remain what they are: Outlets selling food that are priced cheap and taste delicious?
This question was obliquely answered by The Washington Post's Arun Gupta: "Expecting the fast-food sector to help solve the obesity crisis is like asking bars to promote sobriety." Profound observation that.
Gupta's observation is applicable to McDonald's, which can't eliminate the risks to health some of its popular food items pose. Herein is the significance for the Player Escorts Programme " it seduces children to become such loyal customers that they and their parents would forget the risks to their health in the future for instant gratification in the present.