Sunday, April 20, 2014

On Food, Subsidies, Crime and Fat

03/09/2012

First Lady Michelle Obama has been urging children to eat healthy foods from the beginning of her husband's presidency. Here she is in a White House garden with elementary school students. One bit of recent research finds that having junk food in schools doesn't lead to an increase in obesity, however. Assumptions about food, agriculture and health are as thick as dandelions.

First Lady Michelle Obama has made healthy eating and exercise a national crusade — and in the process she has promoted the assumption that Americans are gaining weight because cheap, high-calorie foods are so readily available. Get rid of the junk and have more good foods around, the theory goes, and people (especially school kids) will begin thinning.

Another assumption is that agricultural subsidies have led to the obesity epidemic. Subsidies for corn have reduced the market price of corn syrup — and that has reduced the cost of stuff made with corn syrup. Cheaper corn syrup goods have increased consumption AND obesity. Or so the story goes

We have no idea if any of these beliefs is true — even if they are all considered fact in much of the country. There are, however, a number of studies that have been published recently that address these issues (and many more).

Summaries of the academic, peer-reviewed papers can be found at the very useful National Affairs blog at the National Journal. Every day Kevin Lewis collects the latest research in one category. Recently, Lewis looked at new research on food and food production. 

There's all kind of cool research here. For instance, if you change the color of potato chips in a tube every fifth or seventh chip, people will eat fewer chips. There's something about seeing a change in the chips coming out of the tube that makes people monitor their eating a little bit more closely.

Here is what some of this other research tells us: 

Agriculture subsidies have not led to a vast increase in caloric consumption in the U.S. and even those small effects have been diminishing.

Three researchers note that people have been saying that the country's ag policies have "contributed to increased obesity rates in the United States...." Trouble is, "such claims are often made without any analysis" of the relationship between support systems, prices and consumption.

The researchers set out to learn if subsidies for ten ag commodities led to increased consumption of calories:

Our results indicate that—holding all other policies constant—removing US subsidies on grains and oilseeds in the three periods would have caused caloric consumption to decrease minimally whereas removal of all US agricultural policies (including barriers against imports of sugar and dairy products) would have caused total caloric intake to increase. Our results also indicate that the influence of agricultural policies on caloric intake has diminished over time. 

"How Have Agricultural Policies Influenced Caloric Consumption in the United States?" by Bradley J. Rickard, Abigail Okrent and Julian M. Alston, in Health Economics. 

Fast food is not making us fat.

Two economists in California note the common assumption that there is a link between the ubiquity of fast food restaurants and obesity. They examined data in all states from 2001 through 2009, controlling for other factors that may have influenced obesity. 

Our examination indicates no support for the view that fast food is a significant causal factor behind the substantial weight gain exhibited by the U.S. population.

"The Relationship Between Fast Food and Obesity" by Michael L. Marlow and Alden Shiers in Applied Economics Letters. 

Having junk food in schools does not cause kids to gain weight.

Two researchers set out to discover if the widespread assumption that having junk food available in schools resulted in weight gain among students. They took a national sample of fifth graders. Unlike other studies, however, they controlled for children's weight on entering the school.

Our main finding is that junk food availability does not significantly increase BMI (body mass index) or obesity among this fifth-grade cohort despite the increased likelihood of in-school junk food purchases.

Having junk food around didn't seem to affect overall food consumption or physical activity.

"Junk Food in Schools and Childhood Obesity" by Ashlesha Datar and Nancy Nicosia in Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 

Obesity may result in lower crime rates.

Two researchers found the good side of having an overweight population: Fat people commit fewer crimes.

The researchers hypothesized that "obese individuals are less likely to commit crime and be arrested because their body weights may prevent them from successfully engaging in certain criminal activities, particularly those that are physically intensive."

Indeed, the researchers found, "obesity is negatively related to arrest." In one type of crime, they found that "the odds of an obese man being arrested are 64 percent of those of a healthy weight man."

Maybe we've given obesity a bad rap. "The social costs of obesity may be overstated if obesity reduces the likelihood of arrest because the obese are less criminally active," they conclude. 

"The Association of Obesity With the Likelihood of Arrest for Young Adults" by David E Kalist and Freddy Siahaan, in Economics & Human Biology. 

Subsidizing healthy foods could reduce blood cholesterol.

These researchers found that there was a relationship between food prices and consumption of healthy foods. 

We find that prices of vegetables, processed foods, and whole milk and whole grains are significantly associated with blood cholesterol levels.... Having analyzed the costs and benefits of government interventions, we find that a subsidy of vegetables and whole grains would be an efficient way to reduce CVD expenditures.

"Food Prices and Blood Cholesterol," by Ilya Rahkovsky and Christian Gregory, in Economics & Human Biology. 

The best way to get Americans to eat more health foods is to tax calories, not particular types of food or drink.

It's often recommended that government tax certain foods as a way to encourage people to consume better food: tax the bad stuff and subsidize the foods that are good for us. Two researchers find that the best thing to do would be to just tax calories.

"We find that, compared with retail taxes on fat, sugar, or all food, or subsidies on fruits and vegetables at the farm or retail levels, a tax on calories would be the most efficient obesity policy," they write. "A tax on calories would have the lowest deadweight loss per pound of fat reduction in average adult weight, and would yield a net social gain once the impact on public health care expenditures is considered."

"The Effects of Farm Commodity and Retail Food Policies on Obesity and Economic Welfare in the United States" by Abigail M. Okrent and Julian M. Alston, in American Journal of Agricultural Economics. 

 

Comments

fast food and obesity

No connection between rising obesity and fast food?  I don't know, Bill.  Perhaps but I would feel better if researchers would reveal their sources of funding along with the research.  As evidence linking cigarettes and lung cancer mounted in the 1950s, the cigarette manufacturers funded the Tobacco Industry Research Commission (later to become the Tobacco Research Council) to look into the matter. This industry-funded group found no compelling evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship between cigarettes and smoking.  I'm not accusing these economists, just curious.