Amidst the preening flock of sanctimonious food-related articles that flit across our social media newsfeeds or strut into our inboxes each month, there is occasionally a dark horse. Dark horse pieces in contemporary food writing stand out not because they proclaim that the current industrial food system is broken. Even ardent critics of the food reform movement know deep down that our calorie production infrastructure is untenable and bloated with hidden costs. No, the dark horse compositions take a bolder stance: they unabashedly lionize the crown jewels of our fast food imperium. Typically, dark horse authors view themselves as martyrs for the lower classes, standing bravely athwart a runaway torrent of invectives penned by “out of touch” (and probably smelly) vegans, or sneering nanny-state propagandists who want to raise the cost of living for our neediest citizens.
And good for those contrarian writers. A balanced dialogue makes for a healthy social conversation. But Kyle Smith’s recent dark horse piece in the New York Post, “The Greatest Food In Human History,” is little more than a litany of borrowed, scattered, and weak assertions amassed in slapdash fashion under the NYP’s bright red Look At Me! banner. During a casual read, Smith seemingly commands the reader’s fidelity to the argument that poor people need low-cost food and that the obvious leading option for them is “the greatest food in human history” (TGFIHH): the McDonalds McDouble cheeseburger. The TGFIHH term is Smith’s, but he derives it from a blog post belonging to “Freakonomics” author Stephen Dubner, in which a reader named Ralph writes to Dubner claiming that the McDouble is “the cheapest, most nutritious and bountiful food that has ever existed in human history.”
One should begin by recognizing the voice behind the piece’s core argument. The voice does not belong to Kyle Smith (whose primary role at the Post is as one of four film critics), nor to Stephen Dubner (a fine writer but a self-described “personality” with provocative views), but to Ralph. Who’s Ralph? A guy. We don’t know. But Smith is happy to mention Dubner and (John Bates Clark Medal-winning economist) Steven D. Levitt by name, even though Levitt is not tied to the blog post in any way.
Smith and Dubner hold aloft the following statistics about the McDouble: it has “390 calories, 23g (half a daily serving) of protein, plus 7% of daily fiber, 20% of daily calcium and so on. Also, you can get it in 14,000 locations in the US and it usually costs $1.” It is, in Smith’s words, an “unsung wonder of modern life.” Ok, Kyle. Ready for this? I agree! It’s a “wonder.” That’s a lot of stuff for $1 out of my wallet. But is it TGFIHH? Big question. And I was sort-of kind-of understanding the logic until I re-read the subtitle of the article: “In terms of cost per calorie, no locavore, organic veggie can compete with the McDouble.”
When you get the game wrong, you crown the wrong champions. Smith starts clearly: we’re talking about cost per calorie. But then he starts cavalierly offering other arguments. The McDouble is not only cheap, but it’s “nutritious” and “bountiful”. Bountiful, maybe. Keep in mind that Dubner’s blog post is titled “The Most Bountiful Food In Human History,” not “The Greatest Food In Human History.” But “cheap” and “nutritious”?
Addendum to the original post (added 8/14/13): It’s been brought to my attention that $1 menu items at major fast food chains, particularly the burgers, are “loss leaders” for those chains. Meaning, they lose money on each unit sold. Why would they sell items at a loss? Because few customers buy only a $1 burger. They also buy high-profit items like soda, which net the fast food chains 90% profit margins. That fact is critical to this cost debate: there is no such thing as a $1 burger. Even McDonald’s is McSubsidizing the consumer to artificially lower the direct cost of the burger. Food system cost distortions abound, even where you least expect them. And it’s critical to keep this in mind as you consider the true cost of a McDouble.
It’s on the cost dimension that Smith really goes bananas. “Produce may seem cheap to environmentally aware blond moms who spend $300 on their highlights every month, but if the object is to fill your belly, it is hugely expensive per calorie…Junk food costs as little as $1.76 per 1,000 calories, whereas fresh veggies and the like cost more than 10 times as much…A 2,000-calorie day of meals would, if you stuck strictly to the good-for-you stuff, cost $36.32.”
I’ve already submitted in previous writing that I’m well aware that eating fresh, high-quality produce is expensive and doesn’t necessarily appeal to many American palates. But Smith paints this as an “either/or” proposition where (A) fast food is cheap and (B) fresh produce is prohibitively expensive. Here’s why this “fill your belly” argument is simple and dangerous:
- Is the object in America to fill our bellies? FeedingAmerica.org does not even offer figures on how many people in the U.S. are starving or chronically hungry—meaning, at a true calorie deficit. Instead, they use the term food insecurity, defined as when someone does “not always know where they will find their next meal.” FeedingAmerica asserts that one in five children are food insecure, and are unable to “consistently access nutritious and adequate amounts of food.” Note that “nutritious” is first in line, ahead of “adequate amounts.” So why isn’t FeedingAmerica offering stats on how many young Americans are starving? My hypothesis is that starvation (albeit a real problem) is a much smaller issue in contemporary America than lack of nutrition. It is hard to argue that our most pressing issue is “to fill our bellies” when:
- We dedicate an average of 6% of our household income to food. In Kenya, it’s 45%. We produce a greater abundance of calories at a lower direct cost to consumers than any society in history.
- We have a government safety net for those who are at risk of chronic hunger.
- We have many great non-profits serving free hot meals every day in poor urban areas.
- When nearly 36% of Americans are obese but only 20% are “food insecure,” and obesity is increasing while food insecurity is decreasing, it tells me that we are producing plenty of calories.
In sum total, our bellies are not full. They are overfull. The majority of Americans are not ravenous when they go to bed. They are bloated. We need to ask not whether we can fill our bellies, but with what, and for how much. Which leads me to:
- Fast food is not all that cheap! Sure, there are cost advantages that McDonald’s passes on to consumers thanks to operational scale and efficiencies. Your local farmer’s market doesn’t offer those same competitive advantages. But as a good student of economics, I must continue to flog this point: externalities matter. You pay far more than $1 for a McDouble. How? You pay through your taxes (inefficiently, mind you) for the government subsidies that make corn, soy, and wheat cheap, and thus make the meat from cows that eat those crops cheap. You pay for the massive environmental degradation that concentrated animal feeding operations levy on each ecosystem they operate in. You pay for the strain on resources that burger ingredients impose: think of all the water, energy, and other inputs that go into a burger but aren’t reflected in the price (for example, water prices are blunted by politics but water scarcity is a huge and growing problem; energy prices are blunted by politics but energy production is laden with externalities, such as atmospheric carbon and geopolitical turmoil; etc.). You pay for the ballooning public and personal health costs caused by avoidable chronic disease (because, let’s face it, we’re likely eating that McDouble with fries and a soda). On the last point, America has the highest health care cost burden of any country in history. Think that might be related to our cheap food?
- Finally, produce and “healthy eating” do not have to be ruinously expensive. Fresh, organic produce is certainly costly. But many frozen or canned fruits and vegetables are not that costly, nor are many fresh selections. There exists a broad spectrum of options between 2,000 calories of McDoubles at $5.12 (direct cost; the fully loaded cost with externalities is substantially higher) and 2,000 calories of produce at $36.32. There is real choice. And we can afford to pay more than 6% of our household income if doing so offsets real economic externalities that we pay for anyways! A penny spent wisely is a penny saved somewhere else, particularly when it comes to our health.
Even Dubner asks on his blog, “if you attack on the ‘nutritious’ dimension (I suspect you will), be very specific.” Let’s do it. We’ll go macronutrient-by-macronutrient through fat, carbs, and protein, and of course let’s talk about micronutrients as well.
The McDouble has 19 grams of fat, which accounts for roughly 170 of the 390 calories, or 44%. That means almost half of those cheap calories are fat. Fat can be OK, but the 8 grams of saturated fat are bad for you. By eating a McDouble, you’ve exceeded one-third of the government-recommended daily limit of saturated fat via one-fifth of your government-recommended daily calories. And the bulk of those grams are from the meat and cheese, which, taken together, are nearly devoid of any meaningful micronutrient benefit (particularly on a per-calorie basis): no fiber, 4% of daily vitamin A, no vitamin C, 8% of daily iron, and 8% of daily calcium.
The 33 grams of carbs equate to roughly 132 calories, or another 34% of the total calorie count. 28 grams of those calories come from the bleached wheat flour bun, whose third-most-voluminous ingredient (after flour and water) is high fructose corn syrup. From this bun you get 5% of daily fiber, no vitamins A or C, 10% of daily calcium, and 10% of daily iron ensconced in simple carbs that are fast-metabolizing and obesogenic. Not a great tradeoff there.
Finally, you get the 23 grams of protein at roughly 92 calories. Arguably, this macronutrient is the best “bang for your buck”. The government recommends that an adult eat about double this amount per day. But remember that this is beef and cheese, so that protein is bound up with a considerable amount of fat.
To put this all in context, let’s compare what you get above to a serving of frozen spinach. 45 calories of spinach provides 366% of daily vitamin A, 20% of daily calcium, 14% of vitamin C, 16% of iron, and 18% of daily fiber. This comes with 1 gram of fat, 6 grams of protein, and 7 total carbohydrates.
Note: the cost of 5.5 ounces of frozen spinach was derived from the per-ounce price ($0.14) of frozen spinach on Safeway.com.
So if we’re trying to award the mantle of “most nutritious,” it’s not much of a contest. The table below highlights the difference: except on total calories and protein, spinach is cheaper than the McDouble (and that’s without factoring in the agriculture subsidies and other economic externalities that favor the McDouble). And spinach has less fat and fewer simple carbohydrates than the McDouble, so it wins on those fronts too. If your aim is to simply “fill your belly,” then the McDouble wins. But if you care about what you’re putting in your body, spinach is a very economical champion.
Keep in mind again that we talk about the lack of “nutritious” foods available to the food insecure before we talk about “inadequate amounts” of foods available to the food insecure. In America, lack of nutrition means lack of vital micronutrients more than lack of vital macronutrients. Let’s face it: fat and carbohydrates are cheap.
And although protein is not far behind fat and carbs on a cost basis, it may be the exception here: protein is clearly the best thing going for the McDouble. Protein is indeed important to development and health, but there are innumerable sources of protein that are reasonably priced (the reviled “McBoiled Lentils” that Smith casually dismisses; or soy; or chicken; or fish) and, unlike beef, don’t have the same amount of fat bundled up with each gram of protein. And I have to emphasize yet again: our beef ain’t all that cheap when you tally up the externalities.
So the “nutritious” argument may be somewhat relative, particularly when you map nutrition against cost, which forces subjective prioritization. What is “nutritious” depends on your personal goals. Want to bulk up with a side of heart disease, but get your protein on the cheap? Spend on the McDouble. Want an “unsung wonder” of multitudinous micronutrients critical to your health? Buy the spinach. What do your intuition and your brain tell you is the “greater” food for you?
Nobody – probably not even Smith – would argue with a straight face that the McDouble is more “nutritious” than spinach.
Just for fun: Bountiful?
According to Smith, there are 14,000 McDonald’s storefronts in American. That’s a lot.
But there are 36,536 grocery stores. Let’s say half carry frozen spinach at prices comparable to, or less than, Safeway (which I used in my cost analysis above). That’s more than 18,000 stores.
Nearly everything is bountiful in America. And that’s part of the problem. You can have too much of a good thing.
Senselessness: Cheaper Than A McDouble!
The newsstand price of a weekday issue of the New York Post is $1.00, the same price as a McDouble. For that money, I can read Kyle Smith’s movie blog, or his occasional foray into a critical social debate that demands meaningful economic deliberation. Alternatively, I can just read those pieces for free on the Internet. But both the burger and the blogger come loaded with hidden costs: the burger’s are outlined above; the blogger’s are oversimplification and cavalier grandstanding.
Smith says that “class snobs, locavore foodies and militant anti-corporate types” are “completely heartless when it comes to the other side of the equation: cost.” It’s an eye-catching line, and has some roots in truth. But are economists heartless when they take into account real externalities? Am I heartless for pointing out that micronutrients critical to health are far less costly in produce than in burgers? Or that we’re literally eating ourselves to death because of our collective belief that food is always better when it rings in cheaper at the register?
If Smith were a respectable conservative thinker, he’d admonish the government for lavishing subsidies upon food producers and the industries that support them (energy, etc.). He would be irate about the massive economic inefficiencies caused by artificially cheap fat and carbs. But he’s not. He’s just grabbing attention by defending the status quo against “Marxists” like me who have been taught to think by the nutty leftists at a top graduate program in business. Are the poor people that Smith defends doing better because of the ascent of the McDouble? Look at the stats on obesity. Or the broadening real income gap that’s catalyzing the slow death of a once-vibrant middle class. That gap has been widened by higher health care costs. It certainly has not by closing thanks to industrialized food costs.
The status quo is the McDouble. Is that the best we can do? Is that The Greatest Food In Human History? For our sake, I sure hope not.