16 July 2002

Failures of the free market: food

One of the nice things about the USA is that every food package has a handy table on the back listing the proportions of various nutrients it contains. (It looks like the one on the front page of my web site.) This makes it very easy to look at two cans of soup, and say “Jeez, this one is 34% of my recommended sodium intake for the day, and 20% of my recommended fat… but this one is only 10% sodium and 2% fat.”

The sad thing is, of course, that it doesn’t make any difference to the obesity epidemic.

What we have in food is a failure of the idea of the free market. The problem is, humans evolved in an environment where certain nutrients were difficult to obtain, food supplies were severely constrained, and certain tastes were rare. We therefore evolved particular food preferences. An example is the craving of sweetness, which was once a really good way to motivate us to eat fresh fruit, which is very nutritious but hard to find and retrieve.

Unfortunately, increasing knowledge has allowed us to find other ways to stimulate those desires—so now almost all foods have sugar in, to continue the example. The cravings which used to work so well, now result in us bingeing on the wrong things. We no longer need to store fat to make it through the winter, but potato chips stimulate the “mouthfeel” our primitive ancestors evolved to motivate them. We get plenty of salt and have air conditioning to keep cool, but we still love salty snacks.

So, the free market encourages competition to bring us the most desire-stimulation at the cheapest price possible. The end result is McDonalds. Cheap, nasty food; but oh, so stimulating. For many people it becomes an affordable addiction.

What should we do? Well, we really ought to regulate the free market. If I were supreme ruler, I’d probably decree that no single serving of food be permitted to contain more than half a day’s fat, sodium, cholesterol, and so on. I mean, it’s possible to make delicious pizza that good for you, so why do we let people make the Pizza Hut Stuffed Crust With Extra Cheese pizza?

A single slice of Cheesecake Factory carrot cake contains more saturated fat and cholesterol than you’re supposed to eat in an entire day. Ditto for their chocolate cake. Yet this afternoon I had the most incredible slice of chocolate cake that came in at 18% of a day’s sat. fat. Why are they allowed to get away with it? Aren’t they being as cavalier with our health as the cigarette companies who put in unnecessary nicotine?

Mind you, at least there’s not much danger of passive chocolate cake…

© mathew 2017