Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Michael Pollan, poor people and healthy food

Last night on BBC Radio 4 I listened to the Analysis programme with Michael Pollan. There are many things that he said that I can agree with, but there was one issue where I know that he has got it completely wrong. The issue of poverty and healthy food. This is what he said:-

"...we have created a system in which the cheapest calories are the least healthy calories. So because of the kind of subsidy system I described earlier where we subsidise these commodity crops like soy, corn or maize, and wheat, these are the ones that are turned into sweeteners and starchy foods and processed foods.

And so there have been studies done. There was a great economist at Washington State who sent his graduate students into the supermarket with a dollar. Buy as many calories as you can with that dollar and he wanted to see what they’d come back with. And then buy as many calories of a drink with that dollar. Because this is what the poor are doing. They’re on some kind of assistance plan and they are trying to get through the month without their kids getting hungry. So they’re trying to maximise the calories.

And you won’t be surprised to see that they found that they could get 850 calories of chips with a dollar or 250 calories of carrots with the same dollar. In soda they could get something like a 1000 calories for a dollar and only a couple of hundred calories of milk or juice. So we’ve created a system in which it’s rational to eat badly if you’re on a fixed budget. That’s what we need to change from a policy point of view. Since 1980 the price of soda has gone down 7% and the price of fresh produce has gone up 40% and with changes in our subsidy system we can reverse that. And that’s really where we need to go."

The only way you can get this result is by ignoring lots of different foods such as long-grain rice, pasta and porridge. What happens is that people have preconceptions about the two extremes, healthy food and unhealthy food. So they only look at these two options. They think healthy food is carrots, and unhealthy food is chips.

The cheapest foods of all, in terms of cost of calories, are long-grain rice, pasta and flour. These are cheaper than any processed food, even sugar. This is not my opinion, if you don't believe me, go into the supermarket, get the data and do the calculation. It's not rocket science.

Long-grain rice and pasta may be the starchy foods that Pollan derides, but they have a low glycemic index and so are healthy starches. They don't contribute towards the problem of diabetes that Pollan talks about when eaten in sensible quantities. Flour is variable, some is low GI and some high: I expect the cheapest flour tends to be high GI. That's why I don't recommend people using it as an everyday staple.

So you've got 'a great economist' and his graduate students who come to a completely wrong conclusion because instead of trying to find the truth they merely wanted to confirm their preconceptions. Carrots and most other vegetables aren't going to be a great source of calories. Potatoes can be cheap calories, but chips (we call them crisps) are in fact quite expensive calories. People can drink water and get their calories from food: all this talk about soda versus milk or juice is just stupid.