A Burger a Day: A New Marketplace Podcast

(Photo: Calgary Reviews)

Our latest Marketplace podcast is called “A Burger A Day.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript).

A while back, we posted an e-mail on this blog from a reader named Ralph Thomas:

It has been my gut-level (sorry, pun) feeling for a while now that the McDonald’s McDouble, at 390 Calories, 23g (half a daily serving) of protein, 7% of daily fiber, 20% of daily calcium and iron, etc., is the cheapest, most nutritious, and bountiful food that has ever existed in human history.

This is the kind of statement that most people cannot help but argue with, in one direction or the other (but yeah, mostly in one direction). Is the McDouble really the modern miracle that Thomas suggests, or a food abomination, a perfect symbol of the over-engineered, overabundant food cycle we’re trapped in?

To poke into this question, we set up a debate between Tom Philpott and Blake Hurst, and report their positions back to Kai Ryssdal at Marketplace.

Philpott, a longtime columnist on food and agriculture at Grist, now writes for Mother Jones and runs Maverick Farms, a smart-farming education center in the mountains of western North Carolina. He is in favor of organic farming and against pesticides, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer; he has argued that the meat industry abuses workers and that McDonald’s underpays employees.

Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, runs Hurst Greenery. He’s a third-generation farmer, a former hog farmer who now grows 4,500 acres of no-till row crops including corn and soybeans; he also grows a lot of flowers. Among his written defenses of modern farming are “Don’t Presume to Know a Pig’s Mind” (in the N.Y. Times) and “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals” (in The American). (And here is Tom Philpott criticizing Hurst’s “Omnivore’s Delusion” essay.)

FWIW, McDonald’s has 34,000 restaurants in 118 countries, serving serving nearly 69 million a day.

In the U.S., 85 percent of households are “food secure”; The Economist ranks the U.S. No. 1 in the world on this dimension.

Audio Transcript

Kai RYSSDAL: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio, it’s that moment every couple of weeks we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name. It is “the hidden side of everything.” Dubner, how are you man?


Stephen J. DUBNER: Kai, I’m great. Thank you. Nice to talk to you. You like riddles, don’t you, Kai?




DUBNER: Alright, let me try something out on you then. A listener of ours, a fellow named Ralph Thomas, recently asked us to weigh in on what he calls “the cheapest, most nutritious, and bountiful food that has ever existed in history.” He says It’s got 390 calories, 23 grams of protein, substantial portions of calcium and iron, and it costs only a buck or two. So Kai Ryssdal, let me ask you this, what food is Ralph talking about?


RYSSDAL: It’s got to be like tofu, or soy, or some kind of thing. Right?


DUBNER: God you’re smart.


RYSSDAL: I know!


DUBNER: But you’re wrong, also.


RYSSDAL: You do that to me all the time. What is that?


DUBNER: It’s the McDonald’s McDouble hamburger.


RYSSDAL: No it’s not! Stop it.


DUBNER: Well this is Ralph’s argument, and you responded the way a lot of people respond. We actually brought in a bunch of McDoubles here at WNYC for the staff, and this was definitely not a McDonald’s crowd. Check this out:


STAFF 1: Not nutritious at all.


STAFF 2: Zero nutrition.


STAFF 3: I would say from zero to kale...


STAFF 4: Technically there are pickles, so I think there are vegetables.


STAFF 5: They’re not like real pickles, you know what I mean? It’s like McDonald’s somehow has engineered their own version of the pickle.


STAFF 6: They’re, you know, a piece of synecdoche for American, mass, bland, synthetic, corporatism.


RYSSDAL: Alright so a couple of things: One, synecdoche, good word. Two, I always did like McDonald’s pickles. And number three, c'mon that’s the public radio crowd. You heard the lady: “zero to kale,” c’mon.


DUBNER: That is exactly right. And that’s kinda my point. The more I thought about Ralph Thomas’s question – again, whether the McDouble is the cheapest, most bountiful, and most nutritious food ever –  the more I realized that how you answer that question says a lot about how you see the world, not only our food system, but also the economics of it and even social justice.


RYSSDAL: Whoa dude, where is this coming from?


DUBNER: Well, we set up a little debate on the McDouble between two people - I’d like to play you some of that. One is a health food activist, the other a sort of scholarly farmer. The activist is Tom Philpott, he is a food columnist for Mother Jones, and he says sure, the McDouble is cheap, but that’s because the price does not factor in all the external costs.


Tom PHILPOTT: In order to present to us all that $2 burger, you’re talking about a vast army of working poor people. And that doesn’t even get to the farmer who grew the corn and soy.

DUBNER: Okay, so on the other side is Blake Hurst, who is a corn and soy farmer, and he is the president of the Missouri Farm Bureau. Hurst points out that this vast army of working people are also consumers who benefit from low prices.


Blake HURST: It’s pretty easy to say everyone ought to get paid more, I’m in favor of that, particularly in my own case, but pay is only good in so much as what it can buy. And what you can buy is a McDonald’s cheeseburger for just a little over a buck in almost 14,000 restaurants. And that is a good thing.


RYSSDAL: Alright, so value judgements aside, that’s the cheap part of this equation. What about the “bountiful” thing you were talking about?  


DUBNER: Well as Blake Hurst points out, 14,000 Mickey D’s in the U.S. alone where you can pop in whenever you need a burger – and this highlights a larger issue that he feels is wildly overlooked:


HURST: The biggest unreported story of the last three quarters of a century this increase of the availability of food for the common person.


RYSSDAL: And I’ll give him that. That is, generally speaking, a good thing. You can’t turn around nowadays without finding food.


DUBNER: That’s right. In most places, that’s absolutely true. According to the Global Food Security Index that The Economist publishes, the United States is number one in the world – meaning food is very bountiful. Now, that comes with its own problems of course.


RYSSDAL: Alright but Dubner, listen: The point of the original question is that if you had a bunch of people to feed cheaply, and you wanted to feed them at least reasonably well, what would you give them. What’s the answer?


DUBNER: Well, here’s Tom Philpott’s very Mother Jones-ey idea:


PHILPOTT: You can get a pound of brown rice, organic, and a pound of red lentils for about two bucks each. And a serving size, say a cup of each of those things, would be about 75 cents.


DUBNER: Okay, so that’s that. And here’s how Blake Hurst, the farmer, sees things:


HURST: Yeah, but I rest my case. I’m sorry, there is no amount of marketing that’s going to make me prefer brown rice and lentils over a McDonald’s cheeseburger.


RYSSDAL: All right, well maybe he’s got a point. Who won the debate though, dude?


DUBNER: I’ll let your listeners decide. As you see, people have very strong opinions about this stuff, fact-based or otherwise. In my own home, I’ve got one kid who loves McDonald’s and another who won’t go anywhere near it, and that’s how it goes with these things. So, I guess I got to call Tom Philpott back to get some nice recipes for lentils and rice - I got to feed my daughter.


RYSSDAL: Yeah that’s right. Good luck on that one. Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics.com is the website. Dubner, we’ll talk to you soon.


DUBNER: Thanks for having me Kai.

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  1. Howard Brazee says:

    When I heard the question asked, I was sure the answer would be “blood”.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  2. Dan says:

    I usually really appreciate the thoughtful insight but this was weak. Nothing new or insightful here…take the analysis to the next level and develop a conclusion please.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 4
  3. YX says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 38
  4. Matt says:

    No bountiful food conversation is not complete without mentioning Norman Borlaug. The man who saved a billion lives. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Borlaug
    His new strains of plants has helped grow food for some of the most impoversihed nations in the world.
    Stephen and Steven: When are you going to do a freakonomics on GMO and its impacts on the economy and even the behavioral economics side of the argument.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 1
  5. Jaime M says:

    I have to say, I was surprised that in describing the cost of the burger and extolling how cheap it is, that my normally thorough Freakonomists failed to mention the large hidden cost of the burger through the fact that the agricultural activity that produces the feed and the livestock is highly subsidized by the government.

    The fact that the burger can be sold at such a low cost is because its cost is in part paid for by you whether or not you decide to buy the burger. In fact, the only reason such a product even exists near that price point is because of the government intervention, so I assumed your podcast about it was going to go into the real cost of food in general. I hope you guys can go into that later.

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    • Eric says:

      I think looking at the hidden costs is a great idea, although ag subsidies would come in play even in the rice and lentils diet. And I am not sure it would be that much different if looking at a more expensive hamburger from SmashBurger, a burrito from Chipolte or a dish from Noodles and Co.

      The hidden cost argument would be interesting if it looked at the cost of health care that comes from obesity in consuming items like the inexpensive and convenient source of calories in a cheap McDonald’s burger. Of course, this gets pretty tricky though because how do you value the cost of increased health care costs because of obesity onto each burger?

      A thin person could eat the McDouble and, arguably, the health care cost associated with this choice would be zero (or close to zero). An overweight person could eat a McDouble, side salad and a diet soft drink and the main source of their weight gain may be from eating a bag of potato chips at 10:30 pm before going to bed.

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  6. James says:

    “I’m sorry, there is no amount of marketing that’s going to make me prefer brown rice and lentils over a McDonald’s cheeseburger.”

    Yeah, de gustibus and all that. There’s no amount of marketing that’s going to be me to like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. Not that I have anything against cheeseburgers: you should try my teriyaki mushroom cheeseburger on a toasted multigrain roll sometime. And with a real cheese like asiago, not that ersatz stuff McDonald’s uses.

    But even if we just argue fast food nutrition/price, I would guess that the BRC burrito (beans, rice, cheese) from El Pollo Loco is a better deal.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 10 Thumb down 13
    • Eric says:

      How pretentious… Your teriyaki mushroom cheeseburger (with Asiago chese, no less) on multigrain roll probably costs $18 before tips & service charge delivered to your suite at the Waldorf.

      Trying thinking how poor people think about food and try thinking if you only had $1 to spend today on food, what food would you buy to get you the most calories and nutrition for the day. Its easy being secure, upper-middle class and pining for Asiago cheese instead of that fake McD cheese…

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  7. Meg says:

    Very interesting post. But with so many terms hyperlinked, it is a bit of a slog to read. How do you decide what to link to, and could you be more selective? Have you considered listing some of the relevant sources at the end, so people are less distracted?

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  8. Ben Ho says:

    As the former lead economist for energy and agriculture at the White House, I have heard the argument a lot that fast food has substantial external costs. The problem is, while you can make a long list of external costs, when you actually try to quantify them rigorously, (which government regulators must do when writing any regulation) you find that their size is tiny, they don’t add up to more than a few pennies. Government price supports might make the wheat and beef a few percent cheaper but the wheat is an insignificant cost of the hamburger. Most of the cost of the hamburger in fact is labor.

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