Let My Consumers Free!

These cookies think you're very stupid.

These cookies think you're very stupid.

By Ezra Klein

It’s a shade over a week old now, but I liked Mark Bittman’s piece arguing that the word “organic” has become increasingly misleading. There’s mounting evidence that consumers think organic means all sorts of things — healthy, local, sustainable, safe — that have nothing to do with the label. An organic Oreo, sadly, is still an Oreo.

You can sympathize with consumers aching for some simplification. The problem is that the food industry is pretty good at gaming our rudimentary nutritional knowledge. A friend likes to tell of the time she saw an avocado advertised as “low-carb.” Organic Oreos, I fear, are a real thing. Many more foods now advertise the absence of trans fats than ever had trans fats in them in the first place. Consumers are semi-informed. Marketers are very informed about the precise gaps in consumer information and the best research on consumer decision-making. The asymmetry presents some obvious problems.

At the end of the day, the best information a consumer has is always the price of a good. And we hope that prices include the relevant information. That’s been the goal of the environmental movement’s effort to build the cost of carbon emissions into the price of goods. Rather than asking each consumer to act as a climate scientist when wandering through Costco, the climate change community is trying to let them act as a consumer. The point of cap and trade is to align the decisions we know how to make with the information we have about the long-term impacts of carbon emissions. It will help consumers make good decisions using the tools they have rather than asking them to acquire a whole new skill set.

I’m increasingly coming to the view that the food movement, if indeed such a discrete campaign emerges, should work towards a similar goal. We currently funnel massive subsidies to corn, to meat, to soy products. (Before you leave a comment saying that government intervention into food prices is socialism, please read that last sentence again.) If that mix changed such that the subsidies were now directed at making whole foods cheaper — if we built the information we have about the long-term externalities of food into the initial price, in other words — we’d be aligning consumption decisions with nutritional information, which is an altogether wiser approach than asking consumers to pretend they’re nutritionists.


20 responses to “Let My Consumers Free!

  1. If the goal is subsidizing healthier and more sustainable American eating patterns, I don’t understand why you seem to want to move soy down in the mix…

  2. Isn’t most industrialized/subsidized soy GMO? If so, that would be grounds for moving it down in the mix. Soy does not always equal healthier and more sustainable.

  3. Organic oreos says it all. Organic is just another marketing buzzword-not as bad as “sustainable” and “local” since it actually means something.

    People eat for sustenance and pleasure, not necessarily for nutrition-since under consumption of calories is not an issue here-and certainly not for environmental reasons. Removal of subsidies from corn and soy would most likely increase the cost of meat and sweeteners. The increased prices would most likely reduce consumption-not a bad thing- but the fact that soy is now subsidized hasn’t in any way increased human consumption of soy because Americans don’t care to eat it. Nor is it likely that consumptions of other fruit and vegetables would increase their consumption. Milk, afer all, is heavily subsidized and its consumption has decreased.

    The best way to change eating habits is where they are established not by government intervention.

  4. Ah, that’s where we differ. I don’t subscribe to the anti-GM hysteria; in fact, I suspect that GM plants are the only way to make pesticide-minimal farming scalable.

  5. A friend likes to tell of the time she saw an avocado advertised as “low-carb.”

    I saw a sticker like that on a one-pound block of sharp cheddar.

  6. The increased prices would most likely reduce consumption-not a bad thing- but the fact that soy is now subsidized hasn’t in any way increased human consumption of soy because Americans don’t care to eat it.

    Not as a primary ingredient, but soy is in a LOT of packaged foods. (I don’t personally know anyone who’s soy-allergic, but I understand that it makes things quite difficult.) Similarly, the effect of corn subsidies is not primarily to make us eat large amounts of corn on the cob, although I doubt the ascendancy of high-fructose corn syrup was foreseen when the subsidies started.

    Removal of subsidies for corn, soy, and so on would make a huge impact in the healthfulness of our food without even having to institute new subsidies.

  7. Pingback: An Oreo Is Still An Oreo « HANNAH BW

  8. I’ve given up looking at packaging and instead always turn to the ingredients list first.

    For my grad-level State and Local Governance class, I recently watched a Frontline episode that originally aired in 2004 called “The Persuaders.” It was eye-opening in terms of the psychology of marketing and how, basically – the largest companies in every industry have our number and we are walking targets. I highly recommend it. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/persuaders/view/)

  9. Having recently moved to France, where food hovers at a higher strata of the public consciousness, and where there is a greater conservativeness at moving away from age-old ways of doing things (e.g. bans on genetically modified foods), the problem is just as bad here, if not worse. Here the obfuscation is done with the prefix-turned-into-word “bio”, rather than “organic”. Yes, there are some standardized labels (e.g., “AB” of the http://www.agencebio.org), but there is a wealth of competing labels, not to mention fake ones invented by corporate marketing departments. Even the products that are legitimately labeled, there is generally a lack of supply chain verification (as pointed out by a recent investigative report by the television network France 2); critical since, quite often, raw ingredients are sourced from around the world.

    I haven’t yet come across any bio Oreos here though! The new trend here seems to be bio cosmetics, which tend to have very low requirements to get official label status, such as 15% verified bio content — which is not at all mentioned on the packaging, and one only can discover by visiting a web site.

  10. “Removal of subsidies for corn, soy, and so on would make a huge impact in the healthfulness of our food without even having to institute new subsidies.”

    I agree.

    I’ve become so sick of corn and soy and their derivatives permeating the food system that I am taking things into my own hands and finding food sources that at least use these things minimally (and preferably not at all). It’s empowering to take control like that. I recommend it.

    Soy is in most packaged food, and it’s in most of the milk, meat, and eggs in this country. It is very difficult to escape its presence.

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  12. Why do people demonize high fructose corn syrup?

    It has the same caloric value as table sugar (sucrose) and honey (fructose).

    It has the same molecular structure as table sugar (glucose plus fructose)

    It has the same sweetness as sugar.

    It is derived from a natural source like other sweeteners.

    There is no practical difference between eating sugar, honey, or high fructose corn syrup in terms of health, nutrition or safety. Yet, high fructose corn syrup is treated like radioactive waste while the others are “natural”. This is basically the “organic” argument in reverse.

  13. The argument that we should use price cues to help individuals pick healthy foods is an interesting and appealing one.

    I’m not sure, though, if it works as well as the environmental arguments for pricing carbon.

    To be clear, I’m in complete agreement with your arguments for reducing government spending that subsidizes the very things that are making Americans fat, diabetic, and unhealthy. I would also urge folks to look at subsidies and regulations that make it more difficult for people to access healthy foods.

    Those things would have substantial benefits, but they’re still pretty blunt tools and would not actually make price an adequate guide for consumers to the nutrition of different foods. (For example, even if we dramatically increased the price of meat, “undesirable” cuts of meat–the ones that our grandparents ate during the depression but no one eats anymore–would still be cheaper than the more desirable ones, even though many of them are less healthy–higher in fat, cholesterol, so on–than the more expensive cuts.)

    So, if we really wanted to make price an adequate guide to food health, we’d need to go beyond cutting subsidies to more aggressively intervening in food prices, and that’s where things get tricky. It would be really, really hard for government to set price signals on foods based on health–because of the same issues laid out in your post related to consumers and nutrients. You can’t just subsidize “whole” foods and tax “non-whole” foods in a way that actually makes sense, because you first have to define what “whole” and “non-whole” foods are, and it’s really hard to do that in a way that’s not subject to abundant gaming.

    Suppose we decide to tax transfats? As we’ve seen in response to transfat labeling, it’s pretty easy for companies to replace transfats in a product and label it “transfat free” without actually making it healthier. Suppose to want to subsidize foods with fiber? Can we define it in such a way that we avoid subsidizing the yogurts and candies with the fake fibers that show up on the label but don’t actually do any good?

    So, while I think improving price signals for food is a great idea, I think it has greater limitations than carbon pricing does, and would need to be accompanied by other activities designed to demystify nutrition, reduce the sway of quack nutrition science, and help people use common sense to make decisions about what they eat.

  14. michael pollan has discussed this at length as well. I think that at one level, organic oreos are great! all those wheat and corn fields that will no longer have nitrogen and pesticide runoff really do translate into improvements for farmworkers and ecosystems.

    I think the problem is that ultimately organic is a word that we think means “wholesome and good for the consumer”, when in reality it is a word that refers to a relatively dry list of technical regulations about how various foods must be grown. These regs have some implications for health of consumers, but in reality they have much more to do with the impacts of agriculture on those who do the growing.

  15. Pingback: organic oreos - still bad for you - but better for farmers! « Front Yard Veggies

  16. Bulging Bracket

    If you’re really trying to improve people’s diets, you need to make ALL food dramatically more expensive. Take a look at the food share of budgets for countries where people are thin… In rural India (minimal housing costs) monthly per capita expenses are 565 Rupees, 305 of which are food, or 54%.

    In other words, your plans are vicious, misanthropic, genocidal crap. We should eliminate ALL food subsidies and stop with social engineering attempts. Obesity is pretty well correlated with wealth, has been for thousands of years (see traditional beauty paradigms), and is caused by multiple overlapping genetic factors thanks to our history as hunter gatherers and subsistence farmers. The only way to make people eat the way you want (organic, local, and not very much) is to starve them into submission, rather hard to do in a free and prosperous society.

    It would be nice if you could do one thing that wasn’t evil. Journolist, Tapped, and a food ideology that requires the conscious starvation of the populace. What a prize!

  17. Bulging Bracket

    @dweeble – the HFCS scare is mostly just the latest food devil (previously saturated fat, hyrdogenated fat…). It’s more a symptom of processed food than an actual trigger, because as you note it’s the same chemically as normal sweeteners.

    Libertarians legitimately oppose it since it’s existence is due to subsidies, but we don’t claim that it’s some nutritional evil. It would otherwise be replaced by some other sugar (honey, cane sugar, beet sugar…) depending on costs. The food nazis invent some idea that it’s a “bad sweetener” but that’s utter BS.

    There are a few health nazis who are honest and attack all sugar (they’re the ones advocating against fruit juice, irrespective of whether it’s a drink, punch, or 100% organic fresh squeezed orange juice). The rest are enabling the processed food they claim to despise, since the most highly processed foods come from people with the R&D backing to rapidly provide something that is up to the minute on the best claims while sticking as close as possible to the expected taste. The organic oreos are one of the better examples of this.

    Yet another example of how the Rebel Sell can co-opt the No Logoites before they even finish chanting.

  18. I just found out that “multi-grain” bread means nothing in terms of healthiness. It means yes, they use multiple types of grains, but these grains might still be bleached and all nutrients removed. Always look for “whole grain” or “whole wheat” breads.

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  20. Do you know if they still make organic Oreos? I’ve been looking for them online but this is the only site that mentions them past 2007. I don’t care if they’re actually organic or not, I’m allergic to regular Oreos and the organic ones were made without the things I’m allergic to.

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