A Burger a Day (Ep. 133)

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(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.

Howard Brazee

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


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.


I'm sure a McDouble has no nutritional value to people starving to death in Africa.


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.

Jaime M

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.


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.



"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.


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?

Ben Ho

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.


It's stupid because all the "nutrients" in the cheeseburger are just dropped in via supplements mixed into the dough and whatever. If that's just as good as the real thing (say, whole grain roll, grass-fed beef, real veggie toppings) then why not say cake + a multivitamin is the cheapest, most nutritious food ever created? Or how about a jar of mayonnaise and a multivitamin, it costs a couple bucks and has 10,000 calories and all the nutrients you need, right?


Who is thumbs-downing without responding? White bread is just about the least nutritious food on the planet, McDonald's just mixes in vitamins (hence, "enriched") to make it appear more nutritious. It's like kids' cereals with tons of sugar and 50% of every vitamin. Are those the cheapest, most nutritious foods ever made??


My first thought was that there is no such thing as a "most nutritious food". I was always taught that good nutrition requires a balanced diet, which is something that no one foodstuff can give you.


Can we please stop believing this nonsense that raising wages at the bottom will raise prices? McDonald's made $5.5 billion in profit last year, and the CEO took home $13.2 million in total compensation. I think they can afford to pay their employees who actually prepare and serve their product enough that they don't qualify for food stamps.


Isn't this just the flip side of all those customers buying McDonalds' burgers instead of (arguably) tastier, more nutritious, but more expensive other foods? The market sets a price for a tasteless burger, just as it sets a price for workers whose only skills are asking "Do you want fries with that?" Or would you suggest that, in fairness, we should implement minimum burger price laws?


I disagree. A quick search shows 15 dozen eggs from Costco sell for $15.78. That's less than 10 cents per egg. A medium-sized egg has about 60 calories. That's less than $3.50 for 2,000 calories (recommended average for a woman). So slightly more for a guy, but still below $4.00.

Much healthier and cheaper than the McDouble. May not get you much as far as carbs, but other than that there's no comparison.


Add a couple of slices of whole-grain toast to that, and maybe a bit of butter and some orange juice...

Or even if we must stick to McDonalds, what's the price/calorie of a burger vs an Egg McMuffin?


I wanted to help DUBNER, you don't need to call Tom Philpott. Try these Lentil Salad:
Cook 1 1/4 cups of lentils for 20-25 min. Or till tender; drain.
Cut a 12 oz sausage (turkey ones are very good and healthy!) into 1/2 inch thick-half-moons and cook in skillet for 7 min till lightly browned; remove; set aside.
Stir together lentils, sausages, 9 oz quartered artichoke hearts (drained & rinsed), 4 scallions (trimmed & thinly sliced), 1 small sweet red pepper (finely chopped), and 1 large carrot (grated) in a bowl
Drizzle 1/4 cup balsamic vinaigrette over top and stir until well blended.
Serve immediately

David P

"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."

Is that, in some sense a statement of Say's Law?

steve rea

What about another huge externality associated with cheap fast food: disease and increased health care costs?


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

Is that 69 million burgers, people or dollars?