Should we tax and subsidise foods?

I’ve been thinking a lot about diet. A doctor changed my regimen just recently and I won’t go into details, except to say that I may have had my last pasta carbonara. Ever.

pork belly sandwich
farewell to you too, pork belly sandwich.

Along with all the time I’ve spent reading labels in the health-food aisle, I’ve been spending time reading about how food affects the human body.

I’ve always considered myself a pretty well-read and savvy guy. I think about food. But there have really only been two things I thought about.

  1. Eating the right number of calories.
  2. Eating fruit and vegetables.

You can see a little example of what I was eating in 2010 at this link:  Lots of fruit, some vegetables, but also lots of chocolate and chips and booze.

tomakin parma
I look at this photo, I see salad.

My diet today is pretty different. One of the things I’ve been reading a lot about is gut bacteria. There is a big link from the bacteria that live in your gut to your overall health. The bacteria do a heap of really important work (like protecting against allergies), and can cause major health problems, not limited to gut problems. They may be involved in a lot of mental illnesses and multiple sclerosis. 

The gut bacteria also respond strongly to diet, so you can change the populations in there by eating differently. But that’s not all. They also help change your dietary choices! So you could potentially create a cycle where you start feeding bugs in your gut, instead of feeding your own body.

The big point I’m going to make in this post is that science keeps moving on. It’s amazing how little we understand about nutrition. Some vitamins were discovered within the last century. And the science remains sketchy on whether vitamin supplements help or hurt people.

If I were designing a tax and subsidy scheme for food, and it was 1990, I’d probably have subsidised low-calorie cola, following the principle that fewer calories are better.

But in 2014 science has found evidence that diet coke changes your gut bacteria in a way that induces glucose intolerance. And advice has changed on wine, chocolate, cholesterol, coffee, bread, etc. The history of nutrition advice is a turbulent one.

I increasingly believe that eating better is a good idea. But I’m also aware that trying to fine-tune people’s diets leads to a risk of making a scientific mistake.

And that’s even before you look at the chance of making a policy mistake. Even for foods that are clearly and unambiguously unhealthy, you need to understand why people eat them before you can succesfully make policy that helps people not to choose them.

This great story from the Atlantic The Inconvenience of Salad covers off on a few of the traps that policy makers fall into.

For example, the idea that the problem is availability of healthy foods – the ‘food desert’ concept. That idea did not get support from a study in Philadelphia, where scientists eagerly tracked fruit and vegetable consumption after the opening of a local store. They found it had no impact.

The Inconvenience of Salad is a really nice feature that follows around a young guy who has opened a business putting salads in mason jars, putting the mason jars in vending machines, and putting the vending machines out in public.

salad vending

The vending machines have to be stocked every single day and I fear the nice young dude who has ploughed his life savings into this venture will be broke soon. In the article he appears to be mortally shocked when someone describes salad like this

“It’s just nasty to me; it doesn’t agree with my taste buds.”

While I was reading the article I kept thinking that the US should subsidise this guy. But then I tried to take a step back. How sure am I the science won’t change? How sure am I the subsidy will make a difference to behaviour?

The answer in both cases is I’m fairly sure. But not certain.

There is a big natural experiment in Australia. We actually do tax (most) processed food but fresh foods are not subject to the GST.

Despite this, I am yet to see a single study showing that the 10 per cent tax difference between the two has led to any change in diet, or in health. Has the study not been done for lack of data? Or because obesity has been rising so fast researchers fear what they might discover? If anyone is aware of such a study, please bring it to my attention!

The reason US Southern Style BBQ is taking off in Australia has more to do with economics than you think

In Melbourne, you can’t turn a corner without discovering some old Italian bistro or Chinese restaurant has turned into an American Rib joint.

There’s Ribs n Burgers, Le Bon TonThird Wave Cafe, Meatmother, and Big Boy BBQ. All of which are new, all of which are packed.

Image from Ribs N Burgers.

Sticky, delicious ribs aren’t the only State-side innovation taking over the menu.

There’s also Po’Boy Quarter on the Fitzroy side of Smith St, the Gumbo Kitchen food truck and the Sookie La La Diner where you can get waffles with bacon and maple syrup.

The whole city is suddenly buzzing with American cuisine – and just a few short years ago, that would have seemed like an oxymoron.

The reason is one restaurateurs almost grasp.

“Alabama-born, Dallas-raised Jeremy Sutphin, chef at Le Bon Ton, attributes it to adventure and awareness. ”I’ve been here eight years and the palates are searching for something different – and people are becoming more aware.” “

He’s right about that awareness. Australia’s knowledge of America is now a lot deeper and wider – we’ve now been to America enough that we’ve ventured beyond LA and New York.

And that has happened very recently.



Why the sudden interest? In 2008, airfares to the USA were around $2300. Ouch. Today, Virgin is offering Sydney-LA return from $1229. 

That results from a deliberate decision of the Australian government, to introduce competition into the market.

Here’s Labor Transport Minister Anthony Albanese talking about the “open skies” pact with the US in 2008.

“This agreement will be good for competition and it could … lower airfares.”

We’ll forgive him for not predicting the great barbecue explosion of 2012/13/14.

Of course, post-2009 also coincides with a much higher Aussie dollar. There were three good years there where you could buy a greenback for less than one Aussie dollar. Of course, those days are behind us.

ImageSo if travel predicts what we’ll be eating next, what’s the next big wave?

Fairfax food doyenne Larissa Dubecki is tipping Korean food to take off.  But the bibimbap futures index doesn’t look that frothy to me.

ImageMight a renaissance of Japanese cuisine be on the cards? Perhaps. But Japan’s post-Fukushima bounce back still looks modest compared to other places Australians love to fly.

There is one extremely popular destination still terribly under-represented at the fancy end of the food business. 




Indonesia’s surge is even bigger than America’s.  Looks like queueing up to pay $40 for a plate of nasi goreng cannot be far away.

Revealed: Australia’s manliest and womanliest foods and drinks.

The ABS have set up and released a brand new dataset on Australia’s food consumption. It’s a banquet, a buffet, an all you can eat smorgasbord of delight for data gluttons.

Apparently we consume on average 3.1 kilograms of food and drink in 24 hours. It’s gross to think about.

I’ve gone to the ABS website (or as I call it, the Sizzler of data) and brought you back a doggy bag of sample treats from this survey of 9500 dwellings.

For example, guess what demographic drinks the least water??

Proportion in each group consuming the item in the 24 hours before the survey

The aged! I always imagine them sipping tap water and doing the crossword while muttering darkly about Tony Abbott and their pension. So I’m somewhat amazed. I guess they’re not running 10km very often so perhaps they’re not that thirsty. (Meanwhile, the 14-18 year old bracket loves fizzy drink. No surprises there.)

How about this? Coffee is clearly for people with work to do, while the under-13s and over-71s are busy hosting tea parties.

Proportion in each group consuming the item in the 24 hours before the survey


And how about this one, which shows why you easily sell a bottle of wine for the same price as 24 bottles of beer:

Proportion in each group consuming the item in the 24 hours before the survey

I’d note the ABS probably did this survey during the week, and alcohol consumption is more skewed to the weekend.

Anyway, the dataset is big and quite amazing, and I was able to run some numbers to see what foods and drinks are more skewed to men and women.

1. The biggest skew in the whole dataset was for men aged 51-70. In that age bracket, men were ten times as likely to have chugged back a brew in the preceding 24 hours. 26.8 per cent of men, vs 2.6 per cent of women.

Differences between proportion of women and men consuming in 24 hours preceding survey

2. The next biggest skew in the whole dataset was from women aged 19-30. In that category, women were nearly twice as likely to have sipped a cuppa as men.  35.6 per cent of women vs 20 per cent of men.

Differences between proportion of women and men consuming in 24 hours preceding survey

3. For food, the manliest thing there is, is breakfast cereal, and this is especially so in the nutri-grain demographic, 9-13.

Differences between proportion of women and men eating the food in 24 hours preceding survey


(This fact also reminded me of this line in this song by this quite popular comedy folk duo from New Zealand.)

4. Meanwhile, and lastly For women, the biggest skew is in a little, tiny, unimportant category you’ve probably never heard of. Fruit. Across the age groups, 10 per cent more women had eaten fruit in the preceding 24 hours.

Differences between proportion of women and men eating the food in 24 hours preceding survey

Damnit, men, why’ve you got to be so stereotypical, eating nutrigrain and beer your whole lives and toppling off the perch by having a heart attack?! 

Anyway, it’s Friday so I should probably not lecture you any more about this. See you at the pub.


Monstered Trucks: Are food vans history?

I love Melbourne’s food trucks.


In theory.

In reality I went to the Taco Truck one time when it was parked in Fitzroy North, not so far from me. I felt like I was getting ripped off paying $12 for three little tacos and left hungry.

But today, shock! A report suggests the whole food truck movement is coming apart at the seams. Melbourne now boasts 52 food trucks, Good Food claims. Seven are for sale according to the story. (I could only see two, including this coffee van for $179,000.)

ImageThe report follows a series of articles in The Age in which they claimed Brunswick Street was a “struggle street”. The same journalist, one Alana Schetzer, wrote that story, scraping together 13 Brunswick street venues that had closed in a four year period. In a street that must have a hundred eating places, that’s actually pretty good going.

This latest story does not suggest the death of the truck. Far from it. 

If you look at the statistics for Victoria, they show a healthy scene is driven by fierce natural selection. There were 9100 cafes and restaurants operating at the start of the most recent financial year for which there is data. 1560 closed their doors. 1930 opened up. 

Like a phoenix. From the ashes of one hospitality dream rises another.

Victoria also had 6700 take away food shops. 1220 closed and 1210 opened.

What’s happened with food trucks is simply the maturation of the scene. Next, the weakest competitors will be replaced by savvy operators with actual hospitality experience. Jacques Reymond isn’t doing anything, for example.  The next food truck could be a Rolls Royce.