American Junk Food: Why So Popular in China?

American Junk Food: Why So Popular in China?
Oct 29, 2010 By Andrea Scarlatelli ,

Fast food's popularity in China is no secret. Take a walk down the street of any major city and you are sure to pass countless signs for KFC, McDonald's, and Pizza Hut – sometimes within fifty meters of one another. Lest you think this is only a “big city” problem, consider the fact that, as of 2010, there are fast food restaurants in over 650 cities throughout China. In this day and age, consuming junk food on a daily basis is becoming the norm, not the exception.

Spreading like wildfire

Last year, the only industry to grow within the food sector was fast food, a fact that is largely due to China's rapidly increasing consumption. According to online newspaper The Independent, the fast food industry in China grew 13%, compared to just 2.9% in the U.S. It is easy to see why this growth is so high when you consider that Yum Brands (the parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell) is opening, on average, one new KFC a day. As of earlier this year, there were over 560 Pizza Hut's, 1,200 McDonald's, and 3,000 KFC's throughout the country ( But at one new KFC per day, even statistics that are a couple of months old can not paint the full picture of what is happening in China.

From grease to obese

So what is happening in China? Obesity rates are rising at unprecedented rates, causing great concern among both local and international doctors. While a large part of China was suffering from starvation less than fifty years ago, nowadays it is overeating that is killing the population. The Education of Ministry reports that 15% of Chinese children ages ten to twelve years old are overweight, while another 8% are considered medically obese. These statistics are shocking, even when compared with other countries that have more of a reputation for being overweight. USA Today cites Yang Qing, the director of the Health Ministry, as saying that "The speed of the [weight] increase greatly exceeds the growth trends found in Western developed countries.” Perhaps the most amazing part of this situation is that it has all happened in the last decade or so.

It is pretty easy to see what has changed in the last ten years. China's economic situation has vastly improved, allowing millions of people to earn more money and increase the general standard of living. The more money people tend to make, the less active they tend to become. Physical labor is becoming secondary compared to white collar jobs, where most people tend to sit for long periods of time. Add to that the prevalence of online gaming and other internet activities, and the gluttony of fast food restaurants that are easily accessible to just about anyone, and the sharp increase in obesity is not particularly surprising.

West is best?

But why is junk food so popular in China? One reason is simply due to the genius marketing ploys the fast food companies used when setting up these types of restaurants in China. The point of having major chain restaurants is consistency – you know what you will be getting even before you walk through the doors. But the people behind KFC, McDonald's, and other similar companies realized the need for adaptation. You can find items in Chinese KFC's that you cannot find in the West. That is because they not only realized that Chinese palates are different, but also that they invested the time and money to create new products specifically for those palates. This localization of an international brand makes fast food eaters in China feel as if they are part of a larger community, yet can enjoy their regional tastes.

I believe that plain old curiosity also played heavily into the popularization of fast food restaurants in China, although by now that curiosity has probably almost entirely turned into habit. When places like KFC came to China in the mid-1980's, no one knew what to make of it. And there's not many better ways to get people in the doors of your brand new restaurant than to have something different that everyone's curious to try. There is also, admittedly, the general idea held by many in China that things (whether it be clothing or cars or restaurants) from the West are better, or if something is good enough for Western people it is good enough for Chinese people. This image could also have encouraged Chinese citizens, especially members of the younger generation, to frequent popular American fast food joints.

Ultimately, it seems as though these junk food havens have filled a niche for those wanting appetizing food at decent prices in a clean, inviting atmosphere. When you can get a bowl of noodles on the street for 5rmb, spending 15 RMB on a hamburger, fries, and soda doesn't necessarily seem like that good of a bargain. But when you consider that by spending the 15 RMB at McDonald's, you also get good service (a result of these international chains insisting on mandatory staff training), clean facilities, and a versatile environment, the extra money suddenly seems worth it.

People are also willing to spend a bit more in these fast food restaurants because of the general concern for food safety that seems to be becoming increasingly important to a relatively large portion of the population. While there are still countless food stands on the side of the road that have no government control over safety standards, and many restaurants that prominently hang their “failed health inspection” sticker on the front of their doors are still packed, there are many citizens who demand higher health standards. These foreign fast food restaurants that adhere to Western standards of hygiene appeal to this crowd. It is not an easy feat to maintain chain restaurants that are intimate enough for a casual first date yet provide enough children's activities to entice overworked parents. Yet places like KFC and McDonald's do just that. And until they stop providing what the Chinese people obviously want, they will continue to remain popular. 

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Keywords: Junk food China fast food China why junk food popular China


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