Proof: The Cheaper the Food, the Higher the Weight

First-of-its-kind research finds a link between obesity levels and the price of food.
The Value Meal Menu at McDonald's is ground zero for America's obsession with cheap junk food. (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images)
Jul 2, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Here at TakePart, we do a fair bit of reporting on how much better our nation’s health might be if fresh produce was as affordable as a Big Mac. Anecdotally, we’ve known for a while that Americans love cheap food, and that the cheapest food tends to be bad for us. We’re paying the price too: just 35 percent of us are at a “normal” weight, 36 percent are overweight, and 27 percent are obese.

But a new study gives us hard data linking the price of food and levels of obesity among adolescents—among whom more than a third are overweight or obese. Several economists studied the connection between body fat of U.S. youth from 1999-2004 and the corresponding prices of foods they ate, finding that a higher price for fruits and vegetables was associated with a higher level of youth obesity, while cheap fast food was also correlated with higher youth obesity. The working paper, written by economists Michael Grossman, Erdal Tekin and Roy Wada, was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Here’s how they did it: The researchers obtained body fat measures from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. To analyze the food prices, the economists used three fast-food items—a McDonald’s Quarter-Pounder with cheese, a thin-crust cheese pizza at Pizza Hut or Pizza Inn, and fried chicken at Kentucky Fried Chicken or Church’s—and 21 grocery items, such as a pound of whole chicken, a loaf of white bread and a pound of bananas.

The study’s findings ring true to Hugh Joseph, adjunct assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. It’s the policy implications, however, that present the bigger questions. Some have suggested that taxing less nutritious foods, including fast food, at a higher rate would dissuade Americans from consuming them. Joseph is skeptical, however. For one, the rather arbitrary decisions on which items to tax more would be left in the hands of policymakers—a task that gets complicated quickly.

“Bottom line, it’s very difficult to single out a small number of specific foods or types of foods or beverages that should be taxed in order to achieve a nutritional goal. Similarly, defining what that goal is, is in and of itself open to interpretation,” Joseph tells TakePart. “Is it cutting fat, calories, or sugar, for all sweets, or salt, or what? And no matter what gets on to such a list, you can be sure the industry will respond with ways to get around it.”

And can anyone guarantee that if consumers’ choices are limited through taxation of certain products, they’d necessarily choose healthier options? No, says Joseph.

“If sodas are taxed, or any sugary drinks, it may result in consumption of diet sodas, which is already a trend. Is that a solution?” he asks. “Or consumers may turn to bottled water or fruit juices. Fruit juice has as many calories as soda. And bottled water, while a better nutritional choice, carries the same problems around wasteful use of plastic containers.”

A better solution, Joseph says, is subsidizing or rewarding healthy food—but with consumers, not producers. More and more farmers markets are accepting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit in recent years, and programs like Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program—which offers farmers market shoppers double the value of their SNAP benefit—has resulted in $2 million in SNAP purchases at its partner farm-to-retail venues, which include farmers markets, mobile markets, CSA programs, and farm stands.

The precursor to Wholesome Wave was the Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program, which Joseph cofounded in 1986 with Wholesome Wave cofounder Gus Schumacher. The FMNP was the first incentive program that rewarded consumers for purchasing fresh, local produce at the market and has served as an example of how subsidizing good food with consumers results in healthier choices.

“I think the customer subsidy, rather than a farmer subsidy, is better,” Joseph says, “because it has more impact on consumers while benefitting the appropriate farmers.”