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A Beet Paradox

Beets are the new broccoli. Or at least they will be after Obama takes office on January 20, as the president-elect recently revealed his distaste for this vitamin-laden root vegetable. And Obama is not alone: Even as beet salads have become popular in trendy eateries, most American kids I know also reject the mighty beet.

It’s a curious thing. You see, I grew up in Australia, where just about everyone seems to love eating beets, especially kids. In fact, even those kids who wrinkle their noses at other vegetables still love beets (or “beetroot” to an Aussie). When I arrived in the U.S., I was stunned to find Americans don’t add beetroot to their burgers. In Australia, beetroot on a burger is a given. In fact, during my undergraduate days the student cafeteria stopped serving beetroot on their burgers; I ran for election to the Sydney Uni student union partly on the platform of restoring beetroot on the burgers. (Obama should be careful, beetroot-lovers are a powerful constituency: I was elected in a landslide.)

Even McDonald’s understands the beet imperative, adding a healthy slice to their McOz burgers. And these aren’t fancy beets; the simple canned beets you get from the supermarket will improve any burger. Try it — you will thank me. With more adult tastes, I now prefer my beets roasted, perhaps with goat’s cheese.

But my point isn’t about how best to enjoy your beet, my point is the Beet Paradox: Why is it that American and Australian children have such different reactions to such a simple vegetable? The rest of our diets are pretty similar; our upbringing is similar, and so are the broader social and economic milieus which shape us. Yet the same food elicits starkly different reactions. Why?

And the Beet Paradox forces all of us economists to ask: Can we really treat preferences as exogenous and stable?