Wednesday, 28 December 2011

more about poverty and food

This post is a continuation of my previous post where I am trying to dispel the myth that poor people can't afford to eat healthy food. Zoe Williams stated in a recent Guardian article that a Big Mac is good value for money in terms of calories per penny.

We need a certain number of calories per day. If someone ate 3 Big Macs per day for breakfast, lunch and evening meal they would get 1,770 calories. That would be almost enough for a woman but not a man. Women need 1,940 calories per day and men need 2,550 calories per day. 4 Big Macs a day would give someone 2,360 calories per day. That's kind of an average requirement so let's work with that. 4 Big Macs a day would cost £66.92 a week. Job Seekers Allowance for someone aged 16 to 24 is £53.45, and for someone 25 or over £67.50. So a young person would not be able to afford it and an older person would have 58p left over at the end of the week to spend on everything else. And a man still wouldn't be getting enough calories.

I've just looked on the McDonald's site and it says a Big Mac has 490 calories. I'm sure that I saw somewhere that it has 590. I'm going to have to check that, but if it is 490 that supports my case even better. Here it says it could be 590 or even more.

The more you think about it the more you realise how absurd her advice to poor people is. When I was a child I thought that poor people ate fish and chips. When I became poor I realised I could not afford the fish and that even the chips have to be an occasional treat. You cannot get a bag of chips for less than £1.

It should be obvious that if you cook food at home it is likely to be cheaper than a fast food outlet. They have to pay for staff and premises etc and that comes from the price of the food. These foods tend to be highly advertised, the costs of which can make up a good fraction of the price of the foods.

The processing of food costs a certain amount of money. White rice is barely processed and brown rice not at all. So much so that if you spill some of certain brands of brown rice on the ground it will grow into rice plants (I know I've tried it). Brown rice is more expensive than white rice, but I expect that is because of 'economies of scale'. If people ate as much brown rice as they do white then it might be as cheap or even cheaper.

Meat can never be cheap food. Cheaper forms of meat will come from factory farms where the animals are fed maize and soya, and some wheat and barley. So therefore meat will always be more expensive than maize, soya, wheat and barley. We can eat all these things.

Zoe Williams thinks that people like me 'secretly yearn for a Big Mac'. I am not a vegetarian, although most of my food is vegetarian (vegan in fact). When I want fast food I will have a bacon butty or a salt beef sandwich. I might do that once a week. Big Macs are boring food.

In her article, Zoe Williams mentions the case of a grandmother who fed her grandchildren for five weeks on nothing but eggs, beans, chip and toast. This is supposed to be an example of what poor people can afford. This doesn't really support her argument, however, for two reasons. Firstly, because it's not a particularly bad diet. Secondly, because it is easy to see how the grandmother could have made improvements without additional cost.

This diet is low in saturated fat. Eggs might have cholesterol in them but it doesn't increase blood cholesterol. Eggs are a good source of protein and micronutrients. The main problem is the lack of vegetables and fruit. It is true (as Zoe Williams says) that vegetables don't provide many calories per penny. However, if you use grains to provide most of your calories in the form of starch, then vegetables can bulk it out so you feel fuller. And they have lots of micronutrients. Vegetables are cheap.

There are many ways to cook potatoes. Boiled, baked, mashed, or as bubble-and-squeak. It's not going to cost more to cook your potatoes in different ways each day. Vegetable oil for deep frying usually has too much omega-6 and more calories than you'd want.

By beans, I assume she means baked beans. There are other beans ready cooked from tins. There are many other beans bought dried in packets. There are other pulses like chick peas, peas and lentils. Pulses are high in protein and starch.

Toast is one way to eat wheat. Wheat is consumed in many forms; bread, pasta, couscous, cracked wheat and bulgur. There are other grains, such as rice, maize, oats and barley. Eggs are just one of the cheap ways to get animal protein.

My guess is that the grandmother was putting butter on her toast, in which case it wouldn't have been the low saturated fat diet it might seem. The best quality olive oil is cheaper than even the cheapest butter.

So there is no need for a cheap diet to be a boring one. Or an unhealthy one.

See my table comparing cheapness of foods.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

poor people can't afford to eat healthy food?

There has been another article in the Guardian stating that poor people cannot possibly afford to eat healthy food. They do this from time to time, there was one written a while ago by Julie Bindel. I know it is not true because I am a poor person and I eat healthy food. These are the three main points in the article.
  1. Cheap foods are fatty, and fat stops people from being hungry. Vegetables can't do that, and organic vegetables are especially poor value in this respect. There is nothing cheaper than fatty foods to stop hunger.
  2. People battling food scarcity tend to overeat when food is available.
  3. Poor people have to buy food that their children will eat. If children don't eat the food they are given then it will be wasted, and people can't afford to waste food.
I shall go through each point one by one.

1. The cheapest foods are not fatty. It is wrong for Zoe Williams - who wrote the article - to state that the choice for poor people is between fatty foods and vegetables. The choice is between fatty foods and things like bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and beans. Vegetables can bulk out these and so are valuable, in addition to providing vitamins and minerals. 1 kg of rice costs 40p from Lidl and provides 3,470 calories. A Big Mac costs £2.39 and provides 590 calories, more than half of them from fat. I have done some simple calculations, shown towards the end of this post, and it works out that healthy foods are on average about ten times cheaper than the unhealthy foods that Zoe Williams mentions.

2. I know what it's like to be on Job Seekers Allowance and to run out of money at the end of a fortnight before the next payment. You can buy 1kg of rice for 40p from Lidl and keep it in the back of a cupboard for if you might need it. Or use the loose change in your pocket or ask a neighbour to lend you 40p. You can live off that for days if necessary, especially if you have a few other ingredients in the cupboard. With a few beans and not much else you could make Rice and Peas, which is a traditional West Indian dish, or another rice dish. There's no reason for people to be 'battling food scarcity'. People with children have more money than single people on Job Seekers Allowance because the previous government was so keen to lessen child poverty.

3. When I was a child I had to eat what was provided for me or go without. In most parts of the world that is still true. Children don't starve themselves if they are not allowed to eat only their favourite foods all the time. If they leave food it can be eaten by adults and not wasted. It's wrong to think that children don't like healthy food. Baked beans on toast is reasonably healthy and is something that children like.

To understand the relationship between food and health, it is important to realise that we are talking about three separate things. They are not equally important.

1. Too many calories. Too much fat, sugar and salt. Too many calories results in obesity, which contributes towards diabetes, heart disease and strokes. Saturated fat contributes towards heart disease and strokes. Sugar and refined starch contribute towards diabetes. Salt contributes towards heart disease and strokes.

If people ate 10% less food their health would improve and they would save 10p in every £1. They can do better than that by getting a smaller proportion of the calories they eat from fat and sugar and more from the starchy staples. They can also increase the quality of the fat they eat as well as decreasing the quantity. Saturated fats should be avoided, but some unsatured fats can be a problem too. Trans fats should be avoided wherever possible. Most vegetable oils contain more omega-6 than is healthy. Omega-9 (also called monounsaturated) rich oils are good. Olive oil is high in omega-9. You may think that poor people can't afford olive oil but in fact both Lidl and Aldi have cheap olive oils that have won a taste test. Extra virgin olive oil from Lidl or Aldi provides a lot more calories per penny than a Big Mac or crisps. Omega-3 rich oils are good too.

2. Too little fruit and vegetables. There is evidence that eating fruit and vegetables helps with heart disease and cancer. They contain vitamins and minerals that are needed in small quantities. Some of these are antioxidants. They also contain other things that are valuable, such as lycopene. Beta-carotene (for example) can be obtained cheaply from carrots or green vegetables, or slightly more expensively from sweet potatoes or mangoes. This is why we are told that we should eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

3. Organic food. The reason why people originally chose organic food was because nobody knows the long-term cumulative effects of small amounts of pesticides eaten every day. Pesticides and other agro-chemicals have been tested on animals, but animals don't live very long, vary in how they react to a substance, and don't have a cocktail of different substances in their bodies which interact with each other. Also, people are unhappy with certain aspects of modern agriculture, which could be ecological or animal welfare issues.

Today people may say they prefer the flavour, and there is some evidence that orgainically grown vegetables can be slightly higher in some vitamins. It is not essential for health for people to eat organically grown products.

What is important is that people reduce the amount of calories, fat, sugar and salt. It can save you money too. Eating more fruit and vegetables is of secondary importance. Eating organic vegetables is not important. So when Zoe Williams says that poor people can't afford organic carrots, or that they are not good value for money, she is not saying anything important.

People like Zoe Williams seem to think they are defending poor people against accusations of sloth. I don't think many people are making such an accusation. I'm certainly not doing that. I treat poor people the same as everyone else. People can use information to improve their lives. It isn't helping poor people to tell them that they can't possibly afford to eat healthy food so they might as well not try. It's not true. Such an attitude can only cause a large amount of ill health and suffering.

Poor people aren't just the British working class. They are also people from other continents where poverty is much greater and where people know how to cook cheap food. I have nothing to teach someone from Africa or India in that respect. Poor people are also many middle class people who have recently lost their jobs and are trying to survive on Job Seekers Allowance. We all need to know how to survive these difficult times, and people like Zoe Williams aren't helping.

These are two key statements made by Zoe Williams in her article. I have shown in this post that they are both factually incorrect, and below I have done the calculations to prove it.

"It's more palatable to blame diabetes on lifestyle than accept the fact that, on a penny-per-calorie basis, a Big Mac is simply cheaper"

"Once you accept crap food is an economic choice you have to accept that 24,000 deaths a year aren't related to sloth"

First let's calculate the number of calories per penny for some healthy foods such as rice and olive oil.

White long grain rice from Lidl costs 40p for 1kg. 1kg of rice is 3,470 calories (kcals). That works out as about 87 calories per penny.

White basmati rice from Lidl costs £10.99 for a 10kg bag. That works out at about 31.5 calories per penny.

Italian short grain brown rice from Whole Foods Market in Kensington costs £1.79 per kilo. That works out (assuming the same number of calories per kg as above) at about 19.5 calories per penny. It's probably more than that because I have been using the figure of 347 calories per 100g (read off the back of a packet of basmati) when the figure (looking on different places on the web) could be 350 or 360 or even more.

All of the types of rice above have a medium GI and so don't cause higher blood glucose and insulin levels that contribute towards diabetes. Some forms of rice have a high GI and are not so good.

Extra virgin olive oil from Lidl costs £2.25 for 750ml. Olive oil has 823 calories per 100ml. That works out as about 27.5 calories per penny.

Now let's compare this with the unhealthy forms of food mentioned in the article.

A Big Mac costs £2.39 and has 590 calories. That works out as about 2.5 calories per penny.

A McDonald's cheeseburger costs 99p and has 295 calories. That works out at just under 3 calories per penny.

A packet of Walkers ready salted crisps costs 30p for 25g. Each pack has 134 calories. That works out as about 4.5 calories per penny.

It can clearly be seen that all of the healthy foods above provide more calories per penny than any of the unhealthy foods. Even brown rice from Kensington High Street and extra virgin olive oil will assuage hunger pangs for less money than either a Big Mac or some crisps. Not only is extra virgin olive oil cheaper than a Big Mac in terms of calories per penny, it is more than 11 times cheaper.

Of course, the number of calories per penny (or penny-per-calorie as Zoe Williams would put it) is not the most important criterion for healthy food. But she has talked about how much it costs to overcome hunger. She believes that Big Macs and crisps are better for that and thinks that is why poor people eat these things. She's wrong.

I wouldn't expect anyone to eat just rice, there are so many ways to have rice with other things, including other cheap things. For example, rice with dal and vegetable curry. Dal is an Indian dish made with lentils (about 19.5 calories per penny). We're not talking austerity here. I would prefer to eat food from around the world than foods whose main flavours are fat, sugar and salt. I'm not expecting people to be vegetarian or vegan, there are cheap ways of eating animal protein too.

Even organic food can be cheaper than McDonald's or crisps. Lidl sell a 500g bag of organic whole durum wheat farfalle pasta for 84p (about 20 calories per penny). If you average out the calories per penny of the 6 healthy foods and the 3 unhealthy foods mentioned above then the unhealthy foods are about ten times more expensive.

Talk about poor people should be educated, it looks as if Zoe Williams needs to be educated. Talk about sloth, couldn't Zoe Williams be bothered to do a few simple calculations before saying something incorrect? Does she not think that the health of poor people is important? Has she not considered the effects of her words? Zoe Williams sees things in black-and-white. Either poor people are eating organic carrots or they're eating Big Macs. Either the poor are are totally responsible for what happens to them or they have no responsibility at all. The truth as always lies somewhere inbetween these two extremes.

See my table comparing cheapness of foods.

Monday, 5 December 2011

more meat, please?

In this blog I have argued that the best way to provide food for an increasing global population is for us to feed less grain and soya to animals and to eat more of it ourselves. I'm not the only person who says this, it seems just common sense, but some have argued against it.

I have been listening to two radio programmes as podcasts where this issue has been debated. Recently on 29th of October on BBC World Service there was an episode of The Forum. On 24th of January on Radio 4 there was an episode of Farming Today entitled 'Feeding the world in 2050'.

On The Forum Bridget Kendall asked Jason Clay should we not be eating less meat and more veg. Jason Clay works with the World Wildlife Fund. This is what he said in reply:-

"Let's use science and math to help us think this through. Most animal protein in the world, for example most beef, is produced on pasture. Not in feedlots, not with grain. 85 to 90% of global beef is actually produced on grass. By simply switching away from that most of that pasture would never be possible or should be used to grow food crops because you'd have too much erosion, you'd have too many other environmental problems that come from that. And, while vegetables are very good, let's look at the form we eat those vegetables. Fresh vegetables have spoilage and loss rates of 50 to 80%."

He went on to say how important frozen foods are is avoiding waste and preserving nutrients. What is wrong with his argument is that nobody is saying we should plough up grassland and plant lettuces or cauliflowers. We're not even saying that we should plough up grassland and grow grain and pulses. We are saying that much more of the grain and soya that is already grown should be eaten by people, and not fed to animals who then produce meat and dairy products. That is a much more efficient use of resources.

He said that most animal protein is produced on pasture. It's unclear if he is talking about farm animals generally or cattle. Pigs and chickens don't eat grass, they eat mostly maize and soya. He doesn't mention them, though. He says that 85 to 90% of global beef is produced on pasture. At first I thought those figures are wrong, but I can see that globally that could be true. There are a lot of cows in India, for example.

In North America and in Europe, however, very large numbers of cattle are kept in feedlots. Like pigs and chickens they are kept intensively indoors and fed mostly maize and soya. The population of farm animals is getting higher and they are eating more and more grain and soya. So I don't think that science and math support Dr Clay's arguments, and I think it is patronizing of him to imply that his opinion is the only rational one.

Another patronizing man is Professor Maurice Moloney. On Farming Today he was discussing with Sandra Bell of Friends of the Earth. Sandra was saying how we should eat less meat and dairy. This is what he said in reply:-

"I'm certainly not, as a scientist, prepared to risk the lives of 9 billion people by relying upon the idea that we may be able to change behaviours across a very complex social and cultural matrix that exists in the world. And so we've got to be pragmatic and practical about the other solutions we can offer."

He said that more intensive agiculture is the way forward. There are a number of things wrong with this argument. We need to distinguish between intensive crop production and intensive meat and dairy production. It is difficult to argue against intensive crop production. I think it is a wonderful thing that has saved humanity from a lot of mass hunger. We could talk about the problems of the increasing price of necessary inputs like nitrogen fertilizer and decreasing availability of irrigation water, but on the whole I support it. Intensive meat and dairy production is a different thing altogether.

He says that eating less meat and more grains and pulses would require a change in behaviour globally. That is not necessarily true. A change in government policy would do a lot to help. We could forbid new mega dairies and other CAFOs. Apparently the mega dairy at Nocton is not now going ahead. We could treat grain and soya fed meat as a luxury and put VAT on it. We already have VAT on luxuries like ice cream.

Perhaps Dr Clay and Professor Moloney don't realize how important government policy has been in shaping our eating habits. At one time in America beef burgers were made with pig fat. The beef lobby managed to get this banned. Beef however didn't have enough fat to make the burgers palatable, so farmers started keeping cattle in feedlots and feeding them grain. Pig fat is a bit healthier than beef fat, and also pigs are more efficient at converting grain and soya into meat or fat. So we have poorer health and wasted resources because of stupid government policy. And yet if we suggest sensible government policy it is dismissed.

It's not so much that we need to change people's behaviour. Traditionally most people have eaten a starchy staple (usually a grain) together with pulses and vegetables. They have also had a small amount of animal protein. This should continue, but an emerging middle class often want to be Western and what they think is modern.

What is wrong with educating people about nutrition? Nobody is saying that this should be our only method of combating world hunger. It's people like Professor Moloney who seem to be ruling out options. We should educate people that they don't need as much protein as they think they need, that grains and pulses will provide all the good-quality protein people require, and that meat can never be cheap protein compared to something like tofu. While we're at it we can teach them about beta-carotene.

I think both Dr Clay and Professor Moloney believe that technology and the free market will always find solutions to the problems of humanity. The idea that a change in global food policy and mass education are part of the answer is alien to them. They are not being pragmatic and practical about the other solutions and so they are risking the lives of 9 billion people.