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How Economics Affects the Food We Eat Why We Choose Food Unconsciously?

Discover social patterns as you have never seen before.


“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” ~ G.K. Chesterton

Economics are a driver of food choices. For centuries, economics have been so deeply rooted in our food choices that you may not realize how deeply economics actually drive what is available to eat, what is acceptable to eat, and what is glorified to eat. There are foods that are associated with the rich and foods that are associated with the poor.


As I list several of these foods, think about who is eating them. Is it someone who is rich or someone who is poor?


· Filet mignon

· Pork and beans

· Pig’s feet

· Lobster

· Black-eyed peas

· Soup


There is no right or wrong answer, but all of us have been raised and cultured with biases, and these biases, in part, determine our food choices. We have assigned preferences to food regarding their economically perceived value. These biases are, more than likely, unconscious. You probably don’t walk into the store saying, “I am going to buy perceived rich foods today,” but the thoughts are ingrained in our culture, in our food legacy, and in our choices. In the above list, the majority of people probably associate pig’s feet with the poor and filet mignon with the rich. This is a very classic example from the slave narrative. The white, rich master took the best cuts of meat, eating “high off the hog” and discarded the parts that he would not eat. The parts discarded by the white, rich master were eaten by the poor, black slave. Because of this narrative, we think of pig’s feet as a poor food.


In Three Squares, by Abigail Carroll, she proposes that...


"people measure their prosperity in part by the quantity and variety of meat consumed.”

Similarly, black-eyed peas and for that matter most peas were seen as poor or as a “backup” food to wheat. Wheat and sugar were not always affordable crops, as they are today, nor were they affordable to the general population. “Wheat was so hard to come by that it remained nothing short of a luxury for many years in New England,” Carroll wrote. “Its scarcity on the frontier led to a tradition of consuming it only on Sabbaths . . . and prohibited bakers from selling white bread and cakes to Native Americans.”


Wheat and sugar were very expensive and time-consuming foods to produce before the onset of modern, agricultural practices and transportation—through the Midwest waterways for wheat and through the Caribbean for sugar in the 1800s. When one could not afford wheat to make bread or cake, these items were then made from peas, beans, or corn and thus the association of these foods with the poor. We also see the poor economic value associated with peas in the age-old nursery rhyme of “peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.” The poor ate peas. Soup is generally also associated with poverty. Soup kitchens were established to feed those in need, and this free, hot meal is economical and nutritious but viewed as poor nonetheless.


In colonial times, lobster was considered food for the poor. Lobster were so plentiful in Maine that one could collect them in tidal pools just walking on the shoreline. Lobster was fed to prisoners, children, and indentured servants.

Supposedly, the wealthy forced their indentured servants to eat so much lobster that the indentured servants’ contracts were being written to exclude lobster as the main staple. But eventually lobster became scarce, and in this scarcity the food became more valuable.


We have the French to thank for the idea of the “art of dining.” The idea of dinner in courses of appetizer, entrée, and dessert directly comes from Louis XVI in the spirit of the French court—the display of wealth and the gluttony of eating. I am rich and can afford course after course, prepared by my servants in grand fashion. What, no dessert? You culturally need it and want it because of Louis XVI. Somewhere in the back of our minds, more food, and especially more meat, equals more wealth. Conversely, fruits and vegetables are traditionally associated with poverty. Staple foods consisting of primarily potatoes and onions were foods for a common peasant. Furthermore, eating a large amount of fruit created loose bowls, a malady that was directly associated with dysentery and poverty in the 1800s.


Similarly, food is also associated with gender. Certain foods are associated with being female or male. Here is another list of foods. As you read them, ask yourself whether each is a man’s food or a woman’s food:

· Steak

· Salad

· Tea

· Hamburger

· Vegetable soup

· Beer


Once again, there is no right or wrong answer. Most people in our society would state that steak, hamburgers, and beer are foods associated with men, while salad, vegetable soup, and tea are foods associated with women.


Part of understanding our food legacy is understanding our perceptions regarding food. We need to understand on a conscious level what we are choosing to eat and why. We need to understand our history and associations with food if we want to push forward and evolve past our current eating patterns.


Diseases of Affluence versus Diseases of Poverty


In addition to the connection of economics with food, disease is also considered to have an economic component, with some diseases being considered “diseases of affluence” and others considered to be “diseases of poverty.” In poor communities around the world where lack of nutritious food and clean water defines the diet, people die from diseases that are tremendously different than those that afflict people in rich communities around the world where meat, dairy, and processed foods are the primary content of their nutrition. The diseases of poverty are diseases that most Americans would consider curable. These types of diseases are related to malnutrition and starvation, lack of available drinking water, and infections due to lack of sanitation.


In diseases of poverty, 54 percent of children’s deaths worldwide are associated with malnutrition. As a result of vitamin A deficiency, 500,000 poor children become blind each year worldwide, despite the fact that such outcomes can be avoided.

The diseases of poverty include diseases like typhoid, dysentery, tuberculosis, and malaria. Thirty-four percent of deaths in poor countries are caused by infectious or parasitic diseases while 2 percent of deaths in developed, wealthy countries are caused by these same diseases.


With diseases of affluence, where abundance and gluttony of meat, dairy, and processed foods are prevalent, the diseases are “perceived” to be incurable. These diseases include cancer, heart disease, strokes, and diabetes. The irony is that the number of deaths due to the diseases of affluence would be significantly lower if we ate the same way as the people who suffer from the diseases of poverty. The people who suffer from the diseases of poverty eat a plant-based diet, and their rate of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes is three times lower than that of the wealthy nations. For example, the percentage of global deaths caused by cancer in poor countries is 6.3 percent while in developed or affluent countries the rate of cancer deaths is 21 percent. The percentage of global deaths from cardiovascular disease in developed countries is 47.8 percent, while that in poor countries is 18.9 percent.


According to Philip Stevens of the International Policy Network in Diseases of Poverty and the 10/90 Gap, According to Philip Stevens of the International Policy Network in Diseases of Poverty and the 10/90 Gap,


“The fact that low-income countries are rapidly catching up with high-income countries in their levels of obesity only serves to reinforce the point that the two spheres will increasingly suffer from similar diseases in the future. In Kenya, the figure stands at a startling 12 per cent, and in Nigeria it is estimated that between 6 per cent and 8 per cent of people are obese. With growing levels of obesity, it is safe to predict that low-income country populations stand to suffer more in the future from obesity-related diseases such as strokes and diabetes.”

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