Monday, August 27, 2007

Why Food Still Matters

Several readers have asked me why, if I am the “shamanic economist,” I write so much about food. This would have seemed a peculiar question just a century ago. Then, economics was all about food, which along with clothing and shelter was considered one of the three necessities of life. Economics acquired its nickname, “the dismal science,” around that time as a result of a theory put forth by a few American economists that purported to explain why there would always be masses of people starving to death. It almost seems a cruel thing to suggest now, yet up until that time it was all that history had ever known — when times were tough, people went hungry and often died because of it. And, in case anyone needs to be reminded, hunger remains a problem for half of the world’s population, and mass starvation is still a threat when disasters strike the most politically troubled areas of the world — reasons enough for food to continue to be a subject of interest for economists.

And food is important even beyond the question of hunger. Food is more than just the fuel that keeps the human body going. It is also fuel for the human brain. One of the most potent economic resources you can bring to bear in your own life — mental focus — depends to a great extent on how you eat.

It can be tricky. The ultimate brain food is sugar, but eat too much of it and you get a buzz that can keep you from thinking coherently for a few minutes. Eat a little sugar (ideally as part of a complex food) and it gives your brain a boost for an hour or two, but that might be followed by a decline, over the next two hours, to a level of mental functioning below what you would have if you had not eaten. Going hungry can make some people mentally sharp, but unfortunately, the only thing they can think about consistently is food. Eat lots of sugar over a long period of time and it can cause metabolic diseases. So it is not easy to say how you can make the most of your brainpower in connection with sugar. More complex foods can provide similar results without the specific dangers of concentrated sugar, and of course, with those, there are even more scenarios to consider.

Another important issue with food is its long-term effect on health. This is especially a concern with junk food, a broad category that includes everything from cheeseburgers to donuts. Some of the components of junk food are specifically known to be harmful — harmful enough that the quality of food people eat has significant economic impact.

It has been calculated, for example, that a fast food meal is so bad for your health that it can be expected to shorten your life by more than the time you theoretically save by selecting fast food. Add this up across the whole labor force, and we can say that fast food depresses economic activity by killing off workers prematurely.

The best current example is trans fats. These are heavy artificial oils made in factories by chemically combining natural plant oils with acids and other chemicals. Trans fats are known to cause long-term damage to cell walls and are specifically linked to heart disease, so they have been banned in a few places, and giant restaurant chains — Dunkin’ Donuts is the latest example — are removing trans fats from all their recipes. Fried food will still have some trans fats because they also form in cooking oil, especially as it is repeatedly heated and cooled — this the main reason restaurants are supposed to replace all their cooking oil every day (some, though, still reuse the same cooking oil for a week or more at considerable risk to their customers’ health). Trans fats also occur in meat when animals are fed junk food. Still, taking trans fats out of the recipes will probably take away more than 90 percent of the trans fats, making a huge difference in the health effects.

Removing trans fats from junk food is especially important because the health consequences from food are the greatest for the people who will eat just anything. It is hard to estimate how many heart attacks may be avoided by the change in Dunkin’ Donuts’ recipes, but the number is surely at least in the thousands. The cost savings to the economy as a whole are enormous. Even if you just look at the medical care that won’t be needed, it’s enough to dwarf the incremental cost of the natural cooking oil.

In ancient times, everyone took it for granted that food was the most important thing in life. And food is still important, more important than we modern people want to give it credit for. If economics includes the question of how people working together can get the things they desire, and if you look at the central role of food in people’s lives, then you can’t have a proper study of economics without taking a look at food.