A little sanity in the Great Junk Food Panic

By Bill Kaye-Blake 18/10/2012

Food is such an obsession. It produces so much anxiety, whether we have too much or not enough or the wrong kind or the wrong packaging. We have to Do Something, for the kids’ sake. Often, doing something involves fiddling with the GST or imposing junk food taxes.

My favourite inane comparison is this: soda costs less than milk! Imagine! Industrially produced gassy sugar water is cheaper to make than milk from animals — who have to be tended — which then needs to be trucked around the country and kept sanitary at all times. And all milk has to recommend it is some vitamins and protein and calcium and fats and sugars [sarcasm].

The reading and research I’ve done on food suggests that income and prices have less to do with our choices than a lot of other factors. Who we are, who we aspire to be, who we think we should be — these are all just as important. Pricing and taxing policies are blunt instruments compared to the complexity of food decisions (and food anxieties).

Some new research suggests that, yes, it’s about more than prices. New research has found that healthy eaters spend about the same amount on food as unhealthy eaters (leaving aside for the moment what those categories really mean):

New Zealand Health Promotion Agency nutritionist Rebecca Whiting told NZ Newswire researchers had assumed that cost is the primary factor in the healthiness or otherwise of people’s diets.

However, when data emerged that there’s no significant difference in the weekly or per person spend on food between the least and most healthy eaters, researchers wanted to find out what else was at play.

This may sound strange coming from an economist, but prices don’t play as big a role as you might think. Preferences are much more important.

I think what happens is that observers assume that preferences are relatively homogeneous. Therefore, if the observed are eating differently from the obervers, it must be due to external factors like prices. As these researchers found out, first you have to look at preferences. Only then can you start figuring out the impact of prices.

Hurrah for these researchers, injecting some much-needed empirical sanity into our Great Junk Food Panic. And they are presenting their results at an obesity conference, to boot. Good luck to them.