The True Cost of a Twinkie

People who know me know that I have always had unusual eating habits and food interests.  As a teenager, I sure ate a lot, but the significance of food was deeper than that for me: I was keenly interested in the process of eating.  I knew the signaling system between the stomach and brain requires 15 minutes to send and process the “I’m stuffed” message once at max capacity.  When it came to buffet meals, I was ever mindful of the clock. 

Recently, science has begun to uncover links between food intake and health.  Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food are but two of the recent, popular books on the subject.  The science is widespread and burgeoning.  Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a nutritionist, or anyone with a slight interest in nutrition for that matter, who would advocate for Twinkies (RIP Hostess) over blueberries and almonds.

As a closet foodie/ economist, I have often wondered what the implication of the relative price decline in corn and high fructose corn syrup – cheaper, more bountiful, but ultimately less nourishing food substances – would be on long-term societal health.  The convenience of 7-11 and Circle K food options aside, we know that people are consuming more unhealthy foods than ever before, in large part because they are cheaper.  And as a result, some have the good fortune of spending more of their disposable income on things other than food.  Cool things. Like the iPhone 5. 

What we don’t know is what the long term, systematic avoidance of the healthful complex carbs and amino acid chains found in fruits and vegetables will ultimately yield.  However, we do know that heart disease and diabetes consume roughly 2/3 of health care spend in America, and suspect that lifestyle is a principal driver of both diseases. 

So can we take the cost of Type II diabetes and distribute that cost over a lifetime of Twinkies and chips?  My quick, back of the napkin math tells me that Americans spend $10,000 per year to treat diabetes and $4,200 per year on food, implying that fan-favorite processed food may actually be costing Americans 2.5 times the grocery store price tag.  The implications of this food-driven health crisis will be argued at the policy level for years to come, surely pushing other establishments in the direction of McDonalds, which recently announced that it would disclose calorie counts on menus and drive-thrus across the country.

In the meantime, the issue remains that cheap and abundant food sources are working for Americans in the short term (Domino’s delivers!).  However, it is increasingly clear that over the medium and long term, strawberries and broccoli, in addition to new food policy rewarding those who grow, sell, and buy them, may be a better bet for the country. 

 

 

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Photo by Christian Cable <http://www.flickr.com/photos/nexus_icon/>