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Authentic Food?

Over at Bloomberg, Megan McCardle questions consumers' fascination with authentic (dare I say "natural") food.  The whole thing is well worth a read.  Here is an excerpt.

Too, we must remember that not everyone was a good cook. Cooking was a job, not an absorbing hobby, and as with any other job, many people did it badly. Every farm wife could produce enough calories to feed her family (at least, if the raw materials were available). Not all of them could produce anything you’d want to eat. Modern food-processing technology has relieved us of that most “authentic” culinary experience: boring ingredients processed by an indifferent cook into something that you’d only voluntarily consume if you were pretty hungry. Even the memory of these cooks has fallen away, though you’ll encounter a lot of them if you read old novels.

These facts help explain the great paradox at the heart of the authenticity obsession: If those authentic old foods were so great, how come our ancestors were so eager to switch to processed foods?

Philosophical Soylent Haters

David Sax has a recent article in the New Yorker where he decries everything wrong with the new food, Soylent and other tech-derived foods.  He comes to his conclusions despite admitting he's never tried Soylent.  Rather, it seems he's philosophically opposed to the idea.  Sax writes:   

The problem with all this food-2.0 stuff isn’t that it sometimes tastes horrible but that it misses the mark on how our eating is evolving. The tech world approaches food from the perspective of engineering: a defined problem to be solved, with the right equations, formulas, compounds, and brainpower. Soylent was developed by its creator, Rob Rhinehart, to compress all the nutrition the human body needs to live into one single, easily digestible formula, like the twenty-first-century version of manna. But that is fundamentally the opposite of the way we increasingly want to eat in America and in much of the developed world.

But, what is it that people "really want" when they eat?  My research consistently shows it's, healthy, affordable, safe, tasty food; whether it is natural or "fair" or from a particular origin matters far less.  I believe Sax is also mistaking what people say they want which what they actually choose.  As I previously discussed via USDA statistics, the amount of farmland in organic, for example, represents a very small share of all agricultural acreage.  

I don't deny that there is increasing demand for organic, "clean", etc., but I think Sax is mistaking what people want for the method of how it's provided.  The theme of my book Unnaturally Delicious is that if we really want to tackle many of our most pressing problems in agriculture it will require exactly the sort of stuff (like math, science, engineering) that Sax says he wants to keep away from food.  

Sax concludes:

Most humans are happy to eat real food, and crave it in its most natural form. A strawberry picked at the height of summer. Fish pulled from a river and grilled over wood coals. Sourdough bread made from a twenty-year-old starter, and kneaded by hand. Wine grown on knobby vines, and aged in a dark cellar. Why would you disrupt that?

I can think of a lot of reasons why you'd want to "disrupt that."  Because, for examples, his vision is too expensive, unavailable but for the most wealthy, too time consuming, and would use too many of our natural resources if everyone ate this way.  No one I know is trying to keep these "natural" alternatives from consumers, and it is a testament to our vibrant food economy that the market provides these "natural" foods for consumers who are willing to pay for them.  But, that doesn't mean we can't have Solyent too.   

Let me state things differently.  Modern food and agricultural technologies are providing us more affordable food than at any time in our history, reducing hunger all over the world, while at the same time reducing the amount of land we need to bring into production.  We're adopting new technological approaches to keep food safe, quite literally saving lives, and using science to understand how to make a more nutritious, affordable food supply even for people in some of the most impoverished places on the planet.  Scientists are using math, chemistry, engineering and the like to reduce the number of animal we need to produce meat and milk, thereby reducing our carbon impacts. Why would you want to stop all of that?

Zilberman on the Slow and Natural Food Movment

David Zilberman, an agricultural economist at UC Berkeley, has an interesting blog post on the slow and natural food movements. The timing of his piece is impeccable given the long, aggressive defense of the food movement Michael Pollan just wrote in the New York Times Magazine. After a bit of praise for the movements, Zilberman gets to some critiques.

Here are the core criticisms:

However, most of these bodies of thought emphasize advocacy and are short on analysis. In particular, they underemphasize several factors. First, they underemphasize tradeoffs and costs. There are tradeoffs on the demand side, where consumers choose food based on cost, taste, and convenience. Fast food is a huge industry for a reason. The development of ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat meals, modern equipment (electric stoves, refrigerators, and microwaves), and modern supermarkets have been contributors in enabling women to join the job market. At the same time, there are tradeoffs on the supply side between cost of production and technology.

and

Second, the naturalized paradigms undervalue the importance of technology in production and distribution. Modern lifestyle is the result of immense innovations in medicine, biology, communication, etc. I am very aware of the risks that technologies pose, but when I see a poor farmer in Ivory Coast with a cell phone and bicycle, I realize the power of technology. ... The challenge is how to use it appropriately and spread its distribution broadly rather than giving up on it.

and

Third, the naturalist paradigm underestimates the importance of heterogeneity among people and regions. Differences in income lead to different food choices. ... There is a huge difference between farmers in Iowa that obtain more than 10 tons/Hectare of corn and farmers in Africa that may obtain 1.5 tons/Hectare. ... I don’t expect people to use the same techniques everywhere, and that different technologies are appropriate in different locations.

On his last point, I full agree:

Heterogeneity brings me to a larger point. There is a place for both industrial and naturalized agricultural systems. The naturalization paradigm is leading to the emergence of higher-end restaurants and fresh food supply linking the farmer to the consumer, each of which have limited reach but are important source of income and innovation in agriculture. At the same time, the majority of people will be dependent on industrialized agriculture. The two can coexist and coevolve.

Millennials' Food Values

I've given a couple presentations recently on food trends, and in each instance I was asked whether the so-called Millennial generation thinks differently about food issues than older generations.  I haven't spent a lot of time delving into this question because a lot of the willingness-to-pay research I've been involved with over the years suggests demographics don't tend to explain a lot of the variation in willingness-to-pay.

But, given the interest in the subject, I thought I'd take a quick look at some of the data from the monthly Food Demand Survey (FooDS) I've been running for over three years now.  In particular, I pulled the data we ask on so-called "food values."  The question shows respondents 12 issues (randomly ordered across surveys) and asks respondents which are most and least important when buying food.   Respondents have to click with their mouse and drag four (and only four) items in the “most important” box and then do the same for the “least important” box. 

A scale of importance is created by calculating the proportion of times (across the entire
sample) a food value appeared in the most important box minus the proportion of times it
appeared in the least important box. Thus, the range of possible values for a food value is from -1 to +1, where a higher number implies more importance (a +1 would mean the particular food value was placed in the most important box by 100% of respondents). This is a zero-sum scale, and it only reveals relative importance (e.g., how importance taste is compared to price) not overall importance.   

Ok, so here's a graphical illustration of the food values by age group (I've pulled the data over time, so each age group has several thousand observations, yielding margins of error of around +/- 0.025 importance points).

Except for the oldest group, there is agreement in ranking at the top: Taste>Safety>Price.  In the middle-range of importance, there is far less agreement.  Both the 18-24 year old group and the 25-34 year old group could be considered Millennials according to most definitions I've seen.  The Millennials place less relative importance on nutrition than the 55 and older crowd.  However, the top four issues (taste, safety, price, and nutrition) are way more important than the other issues regardless of the generation under consideration.

The Millennials place less importance on appearance but more relative importance on naturalness, animal welfare, convenience and environment than do older generations, particularly the 65 and older group, which compared to the other age groups, places the lowest importance on naturalness, animal welfare, and environment.  There is a big divide when it comes to the importance of origin: the 65 and older group places quite a bit more importance on origin than do people who are 24 years and younger.  

The biggest gap is for origin (there is a 0.30 spread on the -1 to +1 scale) between the youngest Millennials and the oldest group.  The next biggest gap is for naturalness (there is a 0.22 spread on the importance scale) between the oldest group and the 25-34 year old Millennials.  The most agreement is for "fairness."

It might also be instructive to compare all this along another demographic category: gender (margin of error here is +/- 0.014).  

Women place more relative importance on safety, animal welfare, and naturalness than men. Men place more importance on convenience and novelty than women.  The biggest gap is for animal welfare (a 0.19 point difference on the -1 to +1 scale) and then convenience (a 0.16 difference).  

A Plea for Culinary Modernism

This piece by Rachel Laudan is a masterful discussion of the ahistorical fascination with "natural" food.  She gives an interesting historical account of the evolution of cooking and eating, and make the case that industrialization was the great food equalizer - that the view that "natural" food was good for the poor is hogwash.

Here's one excerpt:

As an historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by Culinary Luddism, a past sharply divided between good and bad, between the sunny rural days of yore and the gray industrial present. My enthusiasm for Luddite kitchen wisdom does not carry over to their history, any more than my response to a stirring political speech inclines me to accept the orator as scholar.

The Luddites’ fable of disaster, of a fall from grace, smacks more of wishful thinking than of digging through archives. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast: artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated and fatty. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.

She points out the condescension in the idea that other people should toil away to make their artisanal ethnic foods so that we can take pleasure in them.  Laudan concludes with some of the following thoughts:

Were we able to turn back the clock, as they urge, most of us would be toiling all day in the fields or the kitchen; many of us would be starving. Nostalgia is not what we need.

What we need is an ethos that comes to terms with contemporary, industrialized food, not one that dismisses it, an ethos that opens choices for everyone, not one that closes them for many so that a few may enjoy their labor, and an ethos that does not prejudge, but decides case by case when natural is preferable to processed, fresh to preserved, old to new, slow to fast, artisanal to industrial.