Causes of the Obesity Epidemic ~ Stats: Food Costs

In this series of who knows how many posts, I'm just going to put out graphs either directly obtained from U.S. Per Capita Food Supply Trends, or constructed from data upon which this report was prepared from the USDA.  Now there's no right or wrong data set, but I tend to believe supply data over self-report consumption data, given the plethora of data showing wide discrepancies between reported and actual intake.  While we Americans can be a wasteful sort, the USDA has adjusted the supply data to include waste from 1970 forward.  And for all the flack over food being big business, we also know that what doesn't get sold (and consumed) eventually doesn't get produced any more.  Thus while actual consumption may not be determined with great accuracy, there's little reason to believe that they don't track to the availability/supply.

So, that said, one of the discussions that was going on in comments was about the cost of foods,  so I thought I'd put up this graphic for discussion.
Now this, unfortunately is only from 1985 to 2000, but it's fair to say that this is when the obesity epidemic "took off".  Some comments:
  • All foods increased roughly 60% in price, approximately in line with meats and dairy.  
  • Fresh fruit & veggies increased almost twice the prices of all foods averaged, while all fruit and veggie prices still increased 50% more than all foods.  
  • Cereal & bakery product (aka grain) prices rose faster than all foods,
  • Fish prices also rose faster than all foods, comparable to grain products
  • Dairy rose roughly in line with all foods
  • Red meat and poultry prices rose only slightly less than all foods, and roughly only two-thirds as much as grain product prices rose.
  • Carbonated beverage prices rose the least, roughly one-third as much as all foods.
  • Sugar and sweets (presumably not including carbonated beverages) prices increased comparably to egg prices, roughly three-quarters the increase for all foods.
  • Fats increased in price just a little over half the price increases for all foods.
It is important to keep in mind that these are only percent increases and not reflective of absolute price.   But these data would indicate that relative changes in price do not appear to be a driving force for increased consumption of many "bad foods" nor reduced consumption of "good foods", with perhaps the quite notable relative cheapness of carbonated -- presumably mostly sugary since diet sodas are a fraction of the market -- beverages.  I've also got to point out that these are price changes for the particular foods/groups, and not for cost relative to one another or cost per calorie or gram protein or whatever.  

One of the things that bothers me when I watch news reports and documentaries trying to ferret out the causes of the epidemic is this myth that fast food is cheap.  It's not, it is expensive, especially when one considers the alternatives.  In some cases it may be cheap per calorie, but it is all the more expensive per unit of nutrition (protein, vitamins, minerals and essential fats).  

OK ... a little politics.  Based on the cost changes above and seeing as consumption patterns don't seem to follow what economics would dictate, how do we get people to stop eating crap?  Let's face it, whether we agree or disagree on any recommendation to eat grains, the breading on fried chicken, Fritos and Cap'n Crunch is not what anyone has/had in mind.  So the fact that people are buying this stuff as a matter of course cannot be blamed on the recommendations of others, government or otherwise.  When we seek to influence behavior through the force of government in "free" societies, we do it with taxes.  I just saw a report on the news that in my state, NY, with the highest ciggy taxes in the nation, the poor spend almost 1/4 of their income on cigarettes. Worse yet, these draconian taxes have not curtailed smoking in this population.  Now people can argue on and on amongst themselves over what a good life is for their chickens before they eat them, and they can form non-profits and crusade to end the obesity epidemic, but it makes me almost physically ill to listen to those who think taxing so-called fattening foods is going to be the answer.  We hear: it's for their own good, nobody needs fill-in-the-blank-bad-food/drink,  it's almost like smoking because their poor health effects us all.  As with cigarettes, taxes on foods like sodas will do little more than disproportionately penalize the poor because they disproportionately consume these foods.  The answer to these problems, if there is one, is education.  Those who don't believe that must somehow believe that the poor are too stupid or ignorant to be educated and/or they won't act appropriately (to some elitist arbitrary standard) on the information provided.  

But at least you'll be sticking it to Coca Cola and Pepsi, right?   ;-)   [/ politics]   


Puddleg said…
The answer isn't to tax whatever the current crowd thinks are fattening foods. Part of the answer is to remove food-producing subsidies and tax breaks.
A government that taxes HFCS while subsidising corn farmers is only compounding its original mistake.
If junk food calories seem cheap, it's because they are also being paid for by taxation.
Many governments also subsidize fishing despite this being a waste-promoting way to use a dwindling resource.
Unknown said…
Education is one thing - availability is another thing

From 2009

"New research suggests that stores in poor neighborhoods are much less likely to offer healthy foods than those in wealthier parts of town.

“Where you live matters in terms of your diet,” said study author Dr. Manuel Franco, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. “If you live in a neighborhood with no healthy options, it’ll be tough for you to change your diet.”

Researchers are familiar with the idea that poor people have a harder time getting access to healthy food. But Franco said the two studies his team published are the first to take a look at the issue in a large city; in this case, it was Baltimore. Previous research, he said, only looked at a few neighborhoods or areas."

"The researchers found that 43 percent of predominantly black neighborhoods were in the third of neighborhoods with the least healthy food; 46 percent of the poorest neighborhoods were in that group.

By contrast, just 4 percent of predominantly white neighborhoods were among the third of neighborhoods with the least healthy food. Just 13 percent of the wealthiest neighborhoods were in that group.

A related study by Franco and his colleagues was published in the March issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It looked at a survey of 759 Baltimore residents and found that 24 percent of blacks lived in neighborhoods with poor availability of healthy food, compared to 5 percent of whites."

From 2007

"A study done in 2005 by Dr. Nadine Burke, a pediatrician with California Pacific Medical Center, on the availability of healthful food in Bayview versus the Marina shows that the latter, which has an 84 percent white population, and where median income was $84,710, has more than 100 restaurants, five convenience stores and one fast-food restaurant. The average cost of bread in that neighborhood is $1.09.

In Bayview-Hunters Point, on the other hand, where the median income was $37,146, there are 28 restaurants, 13 convenience stores and six fast food joints. A loaf of bread there costs almost $2.

West Oakland has six fast food restaurants, a couple of liquor stores and Eugene Gateway. According to the 2000 Census data, the median income there was $12,000 per year.

"It's the lowest income neighborhood in Oakland," said Dana Harvey, executive director of the West Oakland-based Environmental Justice Institute and acting director of Mandela Foods Cooperative, a worker-owned outfit that is trying to open a grocery store in the neighborhood."

Unknown said…
From 2009

"People who live in poorer neighborhoods in the U.S. are less likely to have easy access to supermarkets carrying a wide variety of fresh produce and other healthy food, an analysis of 54 studies confirms.

But they probably have plenty of unhealthy fast food joints to choose from, Dr. Nicole I. Larson of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and her colleagues found."

"To investigate, they reviewed studies published between 1985 and 2008 that looked at food access by neighborhood in the United States. While supermarkets are likely to sell the widest variety of healthy foods at the cheapest prices, convenience stores usually charge more, and tend not to sell fresh food, the researchers note in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The studies they reviewed confirmed that minority and low-income individuals who live near supermarkets have healthier diets. For example, one investigation found that the likelihood that African-Americans would meet guidelines for fruit and vegetable consumption rose by 32% with every additional supermarket located in the census tract where they lived.

Three studies found a reduced risk of obesity among people with more supermarkets in their neighborhood; two of these studies found a link between better access to convenience stores and increased obesity risk."

Research suggests that neighborhood residents who have better access to supermarkets and limited access to convenience stores tend to have healthier diets and lower levels of obesity. Results from studies examining the accessibility of restaurants are less consistent, but there is some evidence to suggest that residents with limited access to fast-food restaurants have healthier diets and lower levels of obesity. National and local studies across the U.S. suggest that residents of low-income, minority, and rural neighborhoods are most often affected by poor access to supermarkets and healthful food. In contrast, the availability of fast-food restaurants and energy-dense foods has been found to be greater in lower-income and minority neighborhoods.

Neighborhood disparities in access to food are of great concern because of their potential to influence dietary intake and obesity. Additional research is needed to address various limitations of current studies, identify effective policy actions, and evaluate intervention strategies designed to promote more equitable access to healthy foods
Unknown said…
I don't think getting other people to stop eating crap is very important, what matter is that you and maybe a handful of people you are close to (definitely your significant other and any children you have) not eat crap. With regard to total strangers who you will never even meet, why would you care one way or another what they eat? They can eat arsenic laced with cyanide for all I care, the world's human population is expanding far too quickly for the health of the environment.
CarbSane said…
A government that taxes HFCS while subsidising corn farmers is only compounding its original mistake.

I agree. The whole thing is such a debacle b/c ordinary sugar is artificially expensive due to tariffs.

Still, lots of cheap junk that isn't sweet or subsidized TTBOMK.
CarbSane said…
I tend to agree, but the health crusaders are out trying to save the world. Plus we are reminded of the immense cost we ALL will bear when "these people" become sick and diabetic.
CarbSane said…
Ever since my husband spent almost three years managing a store in one of the worst neighborhoods I remain unconvinced by all of these access arguments.

The only thing they could possibly have a point on is the fresh veggies, and even that is quite a stretch. I've told this story many times, but it bears repeating -- hubs had to carry eggs and milk (cheap too) b/c of company policy but routinely ended up throwing a lot out b/c nobody bought it. Yes, his clientele gravitated to junk foods that were on sale, but the same money would have bought them some really good prepared foods at the bodegas.

This brings up one of my issues with the paleo, LC and other real food movements is that they demonize things like rice and beans. These things are accessible, cheap and nourishing.
I think the real crux of the access argument is the one you're pointing out ... people with access to junk 24x7 gravitate towards it. If you have a chance, watch the show Fat and Fatter, especially the episode with the sisters from Mississippi.
I tend to agree with Ragen Chastain that people should be able to be the boss of their own underpants (love that). But I also think it should be a fair fight too.
bentleyj74 said…
If you spend any time really in and around the types of populations that are really being discussed [below poverty line not modestly overweight middle aged/middle income] what you'll "hear" is rationalizations that sound very entitled but what you'll "see" in their choices and behaviors is very extreme under entitlement coupled with stimulation seeking.

It is probably true imo that the fish and salad and fruit "whole foods" media driven notion of what's "healthy" may legitimately be out of reach or inefficient or both....heck even I'm not willing to go there...nevertheless I can make a weeks worth of chili with a bag of dried beans, a pound of ground meat, and a couple of cans of rotel. I can even run a bag of frozen spinach and a bag of frozen carrots through my blender and dump them both in for nutrition and bulk. No one even notices their inclusion. I can serve this chili over baked potatoes and top with cheese and sour cream and absolutely NO ONE would at all suspect that I had just fed them a really very nourishing meal rather lower in fats, higher in fiber, and packed with veggies for under a dollar a serving. I can DO this because my executive function is sufficient to permit me to plan and prioritize and get all of the moving parts lined up to work together. I have an actual goal and I have laid out the steps from point A to point B. This is what's lacking in people who are living from one visit to the gas station to the next.

I'm not intending this is an "I'm so great" sort of way, quite the contrary in fact. Part of the process of my own recovery back in 'nam was discovering that I had "Dyscalculia" which is similar to dyslexia but rare [upper estimate is 6% of the pop] and involves number reversal/sequencing/visual-spacial-time disorientation rather than letter/speech type problems in fact the right brain function is generally advanced which only really makes it harder to diagnose. No one who happened to have a conversation with me would say to themselves "Hey, I'll bet she can't remember her own phone number right off the top of her head" ... lol. So they assume it's just laziness or carelessness or some sort of "ness" with a negative judgement attached.

Con't for html limit
bentleyj74 said…
Part 2

The reason why this was not discovered until I became a young housewife was because I was not having to determine the sequencing for my own events and everything that was included in my environment stimulated optimal function for me [dance particularly makes heavy use of sequence but just exercise in general will improve mood/clarity/neuro muscular feedback that is very orienting to environment/etc].

So I marry the adult child of an alcoholic [ extra funny because part of what he admired about me in the first place is my great function and proverbial get up and go vibe and both of those went to h*ll in a hand basket living in the environment he was accustomed to...high artificial stimulation coupled with low structure] and in no time flat I can't translate the advice from paper to execution in a viable manner. It doesn't matter if the advice is right or wrong [although it does tend to lean a little puritan imo] it matters that I don't know what I need to be doing on Tues at 2pm in order for things to go smoothly on Thurs at 6 am AND I also don't feel confident in saying "yes" or "no" to things without being able to see their role in the bigger picture.

So yes, it kind of sucks in general that fruits and veg are more expensive than just about everything else due to subsidies...but all things in perspective westerners pay less of their total income on food than just about the whole rest of the world. Anyone who can afford a box of soda for 4 bucks can afford a bag of frozen spinach for less than 2 and surprise surprise if you know what to do with will even last longer.

People are seeking the soda because it's a low hanging stimulant. Ditto chips, frozen pizza, cereal, etc. When you are aimless you are a soft target for any and all predators...including your own self sabotaging traits and habits.

I think that taxing people just applies pressure to the wrong piece of the equation if the goal truly is changing behaviors and it reflects the elitist moral judgement inherent in the desire to influence in the first place. There's no rolling "I think you are a fat lazy bum" in sugar sufficiently that people don't pick up on the subtext and imo it only fuels the victim mentality and solidifies the identity.
Sazz said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
bentleyj74 said…
Beth, I think it depends on where the center of your gravity is. I could walk into any store and spend literally a thousand dollars on junk food if I wanted to without any immediate consequence for myself.

Why don't I?

I think the question is better reversed...why so much investment in placing junk availability THERE as opposed to somewhere else?
Anonymous said…
The hippie stores have plenty of junk food. They don't hide it in the upscale shops at all. That's another myth.
bentleyj74 said…
The hippie stores do have plenty of [expensive] junk food but if I drive through a low income area I will see at least six or seven different dollar menu style fast food joints on the main strip not including gas stations that also sell primarily junk food compared with maybe 2 actual grocery stores that are further away. Those folks know where their bread gets buttered and it's not where people have more money to spend. Again it's not me saying "people eat it because it's there" because actually I think they'd eat it even if it were less convenient but the placement is disproportionate enough for me to think it's not coincidental either.
Karen said…
well said bently!
Gabriella Kadar said…
There are such things as 'food deserts'.

However, I think the biggest obstacle to dietary modification is 'food culture'. How would education work here? Huge amounts of motivation on the part of parents and young people would need to exist. The ultimate in cool would need to be associated with cooking classes, how to shop classes including how to recognize ripe fruit, fresh vegetables. People would need someplace at home to store fresh food. They'd need to learn how to budget their food dollars.

Who would teach them all this even if they would be enthusiastic about learning it?

I can't see an embracing of home cooked food because it doesn't have that good boosted artificially enhanced chemical flavour, plus loads of salt and sugar.

I live in the most multi-ethnic part of Canada, located in north east Toronto. There is a large privately owned hallal supermarket within walking distance to thousands of people living in highrise apartment buildings. The prices are geared to the average income of the residents. For example, large tubs of full fat unflavoured Balkan style yoghurt can be purchased for $1.29 *Ramadan special and $1.99 to $2.29 at other times of the year. This is the exact same brand of yoghurt which is priced at $3.99 at large supermarket chains stores. 2 litres of lactose free milk is $3.89 compared to $5.69.

The people who shop at the hallal supermarket load up their carts with bags and bags of freshly cut meat, fresh vegetables, lots and lots of 4 litre bags of milk, lots of yoghurt, eggs etc.

It looks to me that the Muslim immigrants are doing today what people from Eastern Europe did decades ago: "I came to Canada to eat meat."

Two short blocks away from the hallal supermarket there is the low cost version of one of the supermarket chains. The prices, the variety of produce, the quality of food and the abundance of junkfood is in direct contrast to the hallal supermarket. The customer demographics are also different. It is not unusual to see people pushing out cartloads of cases of sweetened carbonated beverages and huge bags of snack foods because these are what is to be found stacked high at the ends of the aisles approximating the cash registers.

There is a large supermarket which is closer to where I live. Here the selection of fresh vegetables is astounding. There is plenty of variety for any and every ethnic or cultural preference or need. Prices are much lower than the big supermarket chains, the turnover is rapid so vegetables are not wilting away. There is a fresh fish department, a hallal meat department and a regular meat department. Unlike at the chain supermarkets, vegetables and fruit are not sold at a loss while the profit is made on processed foods which are not sensitive to degradation.

The people who shop here are immigrants from all over the world.

Since I shop there a few times per week, I get to take a look at what people have in their shopping carts. By and large, the majority of their purchases are food that must be prepared at home. Yes, there is junkfood available and it sells. But the bulk of purchases are not this stuff.

In the other direction from home is a huge supercentre grocery store that sells everything from drugs to clothing to kitchenware and also food. At the end of any given month, the people receiving government cheques, mostly not members of the 'visible minority groups' (which around here are now the majority), are loading up on groceries: cartloads of processed junk.

The point I'm making is that the immigrants don't have much money either but their food culture determines their food purchase choices. They are also working hard to create new and better lives for themselves and their families in a new land.

Gabriella Kadar said…
The rationing of medical care due to increasing costs has been going on here in Canada for quite some time now and will increase.

The obesity epidemic in the under 30s is going to result in a huge increase in the number of permanently disabled adults in their 30s and up. The government will have to 'write them off' and fund their lives. Their day to day living expenses, housing and medical care are all going to be provided by a government ministry funded by tax dollars.

In the U.K. the government has privatized the agencies that assess disability and there is a monetary incentive for these to decline eligibility for people who genuinely are disabled. It seems likely the the same sort of thing will be happening here in the near future. The writing is on the wall.

Things are going to get very ugly.
Gabriella Kadar said…
It's a vicious circle, actually. The more overweight a person is, the less likely they are to get moving, the more their feet hurt, their backs ache, and the less happy they'll be to stand in a kitchen for more time than absolutely necessary to get the family fed. It's much easier to pop a frozen pizza in the oven and eat it from the cardboard container. No washing up.

As a species we gravitate to the easier options anyway. It goes against the efficiency paradigm to make things more difficult and time consuming.
Anonymous said…
Yeah to re-iterate what Gabriella said in response to unknown. It DOES matter what everyone else eats because we end up helping subsidize these "unhealthies" in the US through medicaid or medicare eventually. Lot's of people even with bad chronic health problems will make it to 65 and get their medicare. The Babyboomers and their Obesityboom is going to wreck our country financially if we don't turn things around. It may actually be almost to late.
It's a matter of the head(s) of the family deciding WHAT to buy and serve. I grew up poor in the South Bronx "ghetto". My mom and dad (in their forties and fifties) bought a little rolly cart thing and we'd go in the weekend to buy groceries. Sometimes had to walk 6 blocks to get to a supermarket (A&P and such), to get the main bulk of groceries. Occasionally got stuff from the closer bodeguitas and the local butcher. I always lived in lower income areas while I lived with my folks, and they had to budget strictly (making minimum wage and then being on Social Security meant money was tight). But going to the supermarket and, in season, fruits and veggies were always part of what we ate. Lots of rice and beans, smaller amounts of beef/pork/chicken, starchy fresh veggies, salad, and canned veggies, milk, eggs, olive oil n vinegar as the staple dressing with salt. Basic stuff.

I, the fast food eater and sugary cereal eater in the family (only one of siblings raised in this country), was the only one who became obese.

I think if mom and pop in poor neighborhoods wanted to serve budget meals they prepared, it can be done. The will to cook the simpler fare has to be there. They could ask grandma how she did it...
And, for the record, I'm all for taxing the hell outta sugary soda and junk food and using that to subsidize fruits and veggies and real nutrition.
bentleyj74 said…
I'm super jealous that you have access to a hallal...ah the things I took for granted before moving to the Midwest.

I agree, it's mostly structural...too many people reach adulthood without sufficient "life skills". Too many structures are poorly designed for efficiency etc. There's a lot of interaction between environment and perception/culture.
Galina L. said…
It is very true. In order to be healthier we are asked to do things that are against our nature - not to eat every time we can and to choose more effort-intense life-style.
Unknown said…
Re it costs me money when other people eat crap food: I would gladly pay money in order to avoid having to be concerned with what total strangers are eating and feeding their children. I have enough responsibilities as it stands, I'm not looking for additional burdens. So maybe they should charge me a fee of $400 a year in exchange for which I don't have to give a rat's ass about what other people eat.
Gabriella Kadar said…
The absolutely bestest thing about the Hallal supermarket is they are open 7a.m. to 10 p.m. 365 days per year. Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving and Easter....

Five minutes by car from home and when something drastic happens, like my daughter developed pneumonia and asthma from the H1N1 virus, I shopped for ingredients (this was the week off between Christmas and after New Years) at 7 a.m.

Cooked up curries of all kinds, rice pilaf, vegetables, salads........and did meals on wheels deliveries by around noon every day. I fed her so much delicious food she eliminated/shit that virus out of her. The fact that the store was open and I could get everything fresh was a blessing.

Best illustration of 'mom's antibiotic' ever. I think I went a bit nuts but the kid was dragging on sick. She stuffed her face biggie time and it seemed to get her healthy again. When I could see she'd gotten her strength back, I went on strike.

Oddly enough, all that huge amount of food did not result in any weight gain whatsoever. She was marvelling at how she was literally spending her day pigging out and not plumping up.
Craig said…
And maybe we need lower quality, more fibrous fruits and veggies....