Products for Charity

We bought a box of Anzac biscuits — a very tasty cookie with no eggs or fat, thus not too many calories and easily preserved. The company, Unibic, states on the box that “4% of sales (revenue) go to the RSL (Returned and Services League).” This reminds me of Newman’s salad dressings, which advertise that all profit goes to charity.

It’s not clear which method would provide more money for charity generally, but I prefer the percent of revenue approach—it removes any incentive to raise costs (executive pay, for example). Either way, though, it’s nice that a few companies support charity so well and so openly. What other examples are there of products that support charity? And which method (percent of revenue or profit) is preferable?

The Burger Debate Catches a Second Wind

Remember this blog post in which a reader asked if the McDouble is perhaps "the cheapest, most nutritious, and bountiful food that has ever existed in human history"? It spawned a lot of commentary on the blog and we followed it up with a Freakonomics Radio podcast

Now the question has been taken up by many others, spurred on by a N.Y. Post column by Kyle Smith and echoed by, among others, Yahoo! and the Wall Street Journal in this country and, in the U.K., the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the Times.

I have gotten about one zillion media requests to talk further about the story but I am busy writing so I had to turn them down.

If you scroll through the comments on the links above -- the Yahoo! post has more than 4,000 comments as of this writing -- you will likely be struck, as I was, by how great Freakonomics commenters are compared to the rest of the world. Literate, lucid, knowledgable, and even when you get enraged you manage to say something useful.

All hail the readers of this blog!

File Under "Not All Additives Are Bad for You"

We have all been pretty conditioned these last several years to view food additives of any sort as pure negatives. So it's interesting to look back to an earlier time and see the effect of an additive that practically no one can argue with. James Feyrer, Dimitra Politi, and David Weil have written a new working paper (abstract; PDF from 2008) about the effect of adding iodine to table salt:

Iodine deficiency is the leading cause of preventable mental retardation in the world today.  The condition, which was common in the developed world until the introduction of iodized salt in the 1920s, is connected to low iodine levels in the soil and water.  We examine the impact of salt iodization on cognitive outcomes in the U.S. by taking advantage of this natural geographic variation.  Salt was iodized over a very short period of time beginning in 1924.  We use military data collected during WWI and WWII to compare outcomes of cohorts born before and after iodization, in localities that were naturally poor and rich in iodine.  We find that for the one-quarter of the population most deficient in iodine this intervention raised IQ by approximately one standard deviation.  Our results can explain roughly one decade's worth of the upward trend in IQ in the U.S. (the Flynn Effect). We also document a large increase in thyroid related deaths following the countrywide adoption of iodized salt, which affected mostly older individuals in localities with high prevalence of iodine deficiency.

Iodine is hardly the only beneficial additive in our food supply. There's vitamins A and D in milk. And fluoride in the water? None of these are completely without controversy of course. What other mostly beneficial additives can you think of?

Cookbooks and Economics

Writing for Foreign Policy, Tyler Cowen explains what cookbooks can tell us about economic development. Why is it easy to find Mexican food cookbooks, but impossible to find a cookbook detailing the recipe for Yemen's mutafayyah dish? Here's Cowen's economic explanation:

Consider how cooking evolves: It starts in the home and then eventually spreads to restaurants and on to cookbooks, along the way transforming a recipe from oral tradition to commercialized product. In the home, recipes are often transmitted from grandmother to mother, or from father to son, or simply by watching and participating. I've seen this in rural Mexico, for instance, when an older daughter teaches her younger sister how to pat tortillas the right way. When societies get richer, you start to see restaurants, a form of specialization like auto mechanics or tailors (see: Adam Smith on the division of labor). Restaurants require that strangers -- other cooks -- be taught the process. That means simplifying or standardizing ingredients so they're easier to work with and, in many cases, available year-round. This, of course, means writing down the recipe. Once a dish reaches these commercial milestones, cookbooks will follow.

More Evidence of the Link Between Obesity and Food Prices

"Our findings suggest that increases in the real price of one calorie in food for home consumption and the real price of fast-food restaurant food lead to improvements in obesity outcomes among youths.  We also find that an increase in the real price of fruits and vegetables has negative consequences for these outcomes."

That's from a new paper (abstract; PDF) by Michael Grossman, Erdal Tekin, and Roy Wada, called "Food Prices and Body Fatness among Youths."

Why Are There Cronut Scalpers?

Between the din of the cicadas appearing up and down the East Coast and the media frenzy over the government’s mass surveillance programs, you might not have heard much about New Yorkers’ real obsession at the moment: the “cronut.” A cross between a croissant and a donut, the cronut is the invention of baker Dominique Ansel, who operates out of a shop in SoHo. Cronuts are so popular that lines form at 6 a.m. — 2 hours before the shop opens — and Ansel runs out within minutes. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet (and Craigslist) there is even a cronut black market, with unauthorized cronut scalpers charging up to $40 apiece for home delivery (a mark up of 700%). And of course there are cronut knockoffs appearing all over the world. Ansel has even trademarked the name "cronut."

Which brings up two questions:

1. Why did it take so long for someone to invent a croissant-donut mash-up? 
2. And, perhaps more importantly for those who want to eat them, why do we see a cronut shortage? The genius of capitalism is that it matches supply with demand – and if there’s a lot of demand for cronuts, supply should quickly expand. Especially here. Cronuts aren’t especially hard to make, don’t require expensive equipment, and are currently unregulated (although give Mayor Bloomberg time.)

Economics in a Fortune Cookie

A Chinese fortune cookie typically offers homely advice or bland predictions with your dessert.  But a recent one offered a good economics lesson:  “The cost of something is what you give up to get it.”  Nice to see the idea of opportunity cost enshrined between baked bits of dough.  I wonder, though, what one does give up at a Chinese restaurant?  (HT to TW)

"The Most Bountiful Food in Human History?"

A reader named Ralph Thomas observes the following:

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.

Who would like to argue against him? And if you attack on the "nutritious" dimension (I suspect you will), be very specific.

FWIW, here, from the McDonald's website nutrition page, is a complete list of ingredients:

An Economic Explanation for the Horsemeat Scandal

From the Independent:

A law banning horses from Romanian roads may be responsible for the surge in the fraudulent sale of horsemeat on the European beef market, a French politician said yesterday.

Horse-drawn carts were a common form of transport for centuries in Romania, but hundreds of thousands of the animals are feared to have been sent to the abattoir after the change in road rules.

The law, which was passed six years ago but only enforced recently, also banned carts drawn by donkeys, leading to speculation among food-industry officials in France that some of the “horse meat” which has turned up on supermarket shelves in Britain, France and Sweden may, in fact, turn out to be donkey meat. “Horses have been banned from Romanian roads and millions of animals have been sent to the slaughterhouse,” said Jose Bove, a veteran campaigner for small farmers who is now vice-president of the European Parliament agriculture committee.

Skipping the Free Buffet

Rational? I’m at a hotel and was given a coupon allowing me to eat the excellent breakfast buffet at no cost. Sounds good; but instead, I go next door to Caribou Coffee and buy a coffee and blackberry scone for $5. Is this utility-maximizing? 

I think so. I know that if I get the “free” buffet, I’ll eat a lot—probably orange juice and a large Belgian waffle with lots of syrup. Having pigged out over Thanksgiving, my weight is already up. Spending the $5 is a self-control mechanism: I know that once I’m done at Caribou, I’ll be sufficiently less hungry that I won’t want to spend time at the buffet (and won’t have eaten more than I should). There’s more to utility than increasing income and/or reducing spending!