29 September 2014

Crispy thoughts, salty concerns

Carolina M. writes:*

Some days ago, I entered a fast food “restaurant” with a friend; we were both on a very tight budget that day and while time was not precisely our main concern, we were definitely quite hungry. “Let’s go to ‘X’!” my friend said, “it’s super cheap and really close by!”, “Yeah that’s true, - I replied - it’s literally a couple of steps away but is it really that cheap? Aren’t the deals around 6-7 euros?” “No, you can get a 2-3 euro deal which includes a burger, fries and something to drink”. Well isn’t that impressive? A relatively filling lunch (since I’d personally go for a bit more food) for what one usually pays just to get coffee or a muffin, or both if you’re lucky enough. In any case, it sounds like a pretty good deal, but is it really? What’s wrong with falling for a super salty, crispy, fast food meal if it makes you happy and saves you time and money?

From an economics perspective, fast food can solve a couple of problems. On the one hand, a student budget tends to be quite constrained and 2-3 euros for a meal is certainly hard to beat, at least when it comes to eating out. On the other hand, time saving can be a key incentive: can we really wait 20 minutes at a restaurant everyday to get a delicious meal taking into consideration all the time needed for attending class, studying and of course socializing? During week days it’s probably better to save that time do the best next alternative, such as studying for that test or doing the readings for that class, and save the nicer, more expensive and time consuming meal for the weekend. Now, when it comes to taste and the amount of satisfaction fast food brings us, this can clearly be debated but all in all we can probably agree that buying fast food is very good as a short-term fulfilling transaction.

However, the problem is that there are many downsides to this kind of food and these become harder to ignore as one becomes more socially conscious and environmentally aware of the impact this industry has on our health, the environment and society as a whole. Obesity, high cholesterol, malnutrition are undeniably related to fast food but so is the ever increasing environmental problem – fast food companies are one of the main drivers of mass production of potatoes and livestock farming which bring consequences such as overgrazing, extra methane production, air and soil pollution as well as animal cruelty. In addition to this, workers in the fast food industry receive really low wages, which brings other socio-economic problems with it as well.

So, on the one hand we have a good short term fulfilling deal, which saves money and time and brings satisfaction to many consumers while, on the other hand, we have many negative spillovers from its consumption, which are both social and environmental. Are these powerful enough to make us stop consuming anything related to this industry? It certainly has changed the perceptions and habits of many but probably not enough since fast food restaurants still seem to overpopulate our planet. Could there be an intermediate solution, where healthy fast food chains arise? Or is that a contradiction in itself? I'm not sure if we're going to make any progress there.

Bottom Line: I propose we make our visit to fast food “restaurants” the exception to the rule, the seldom guilty pleasure, and focus our attention on finding easy healthy options that can adapt to our lifestyle.

* Please comment on these posts from my microeconomics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.


  1. I appreciate your attempt to raise consumer awareness about the choice between the cheap/ unhealthy food and the healthy/ more expensive food! I also agree with making a conscious effort dealing with these daily choices, however can we ‘solve’ this by mere consumer awareness? I think you need more.
    As a consumer I feel at times bombarded with information and I’m confused! What negative externality belongs to what product and in what extend!? My late discovery that pasta sauce is unhealthy because it contains a lot of sucker, swept me of my feet! I don’t even dare to say anymore what is healthy or not. It is because of this that I believe that consumer awareness won’t be enough. With the unclarity created by marketing, long food supply chains, stupendous amount of information and choices, etc, I don’t feel the consumer can make a fair choice at all, aware or not. My proposition is therefore that, besides the consumer awareness you stand for, a government intervention is necessary. Not to forbid any of our unhealthy indulgences, but merely to simplify and clarify this information problem.

  2. I completely agree with you Carolina that fast food "restaurants" should be the exception to the rule, and that people should choose healthier options - which in my opinion is not difficult to find, or THAT much more expensive.

    I think the fundamental problem with fast food being so popular is on one hand the "initial" low price of fast food (I say initial because although it might be cheap for you to buy it at first, in the long run it is hurting your body physically and internally, and the frequent visits to the doctors will probably make it much more expensive than if you would have been eating healthier options).

    On the other hand I also think that people are not educated well enough to know the extent to which these foods cause harm. I agree with you Mathijs that a type of government intervention is necessary, but not only by "simplifying and clarifying this information problem" as you say, but also by highly encouraging their nations to choose the healthier options. I think governments should also subsidise industries that wish to produce healthier options (but cant compete with fast food chains and their low prices), as in the end it is in the government's own interest to keep their population healthy.


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