My economics research is mostly about undernutrition in Africa and Asia, but I am also keen to learn about nutrition in the US, and maybe help improve policies closer to home. Recently I had the opportunity to collaborate with Sue Roberts and others on a question that’s puzzled me for some time: why do we so often leave restaurants feeling regretful that we ate too much?
Restaurants provide a steadily rising share of food consumption in the US and around the world, so making restaurant food healthier is increasingly important for overall diet quality. The study from Sue Roberts’ group showed that, whatever one thinks of the ingredients and nutritional composition, all kinds of restaurants usually bring much too much food to the table. The headline was that 92 percent of measured servings exceeded recommended calorie requirements for a single meal.
People generally eat what’s served, and people don’t fully compensate by eating less at later meals. Large portion sizes therefore play a causal role in over-eating. Our paper documented how big portion sizes actually are, and made the case for asking restaurants as well as diners to take responsibility for the problem by offering smaller portions.
Our paper appeared recently in JAND, and pushed by a well-written press release it added one more study to the daily blizzard of nutrition news, like this Time.com article + video. Friedman’s Marissa Donovan did a particularly nice piece for the wonderful Friedman Sprout website, here: http://friedmansprout.com/2016/03/01/non-chain-restaurants-tip-the-scales.
In reporting her article, Marissa asked me a few questions about the study — here is my full response to Marissa’s enquiry:
Hi Marissa – sorry for very slow response, I was traveling in Ethiopia and am writing this on the flight back. If you’re still working on the story, here are some answers:
- What was a surprising finding of the study?
What was most surprising to me about this study is that no one had done it before. I think pretty much anyone who ever eats out has seen how large portion sizes are, even in independent restaurants. But nutrition researchers took this to be inevitable, so not worth measuring — like everyone else, dieticians just knew that restaurants were dangerous for your waistline. With menu labeling comes the possibility of actually controlling portion sizes, so it’s finally worthwhile to actually measure and publish the data. Measuring something is a key first step towards improving it.
The one small result that’s surprising but not really a finding is that see few differences among types of restaurant. We do find that one virtue of Mediterranean (in this case, Greek) restaurants is smaller serving sizes, but the study was not powered to detect differences among neighborhoods and price points. If we had funds to collect and test many more samples, I expect we’d find that meal sizes are larger in restaurants that serve low- and middle-income people. That’s certainly my experience from eating in all kinds of restaurants around the US, but it would take a lot of sample meals to detect a statistically significant difference since the variation among dishes is so large.
- What do these findings mean for restaurant goers?
I often see diners advised to commit themselves, before they see or smell the meal, to taking home half of what they will be served. Making the decision early gives power to your far-sighted self. The key is to make these decisions before you’re hungry, and especially before your appetite is revved up by an oversized dish. But it’s very difficult to actually follow this advice, mainly because packing up and taking food home is such an awkward step. In practice, I think it’s much smarter just to choose menu items that will come in small enough sizes for you to be comfortable eating the whole thing. Use your far-sighted self to identify restaurants that offer delicious foods in portions suitable for your body size and activity level, then praise them for it on Yelp and Tripadvisor.
- How do the findings of this study change advice you would give to consumers (if at all)?
The standard recommendation is to stay away from restaurants and cook at home instead. This helps you control portion size, and also the mix of ingredients. But you can exercise some of that control in the restaurant by only ordering dishes whose composition and size are both OK. I am confident that restaurants will eventually find ways to offer all kinds of food in appropriate portion sizes, and with appropriate ingredient ratios. Until then, we just need choose restaurants that serve at least one good main dish in a reasonably-sized portion that fits our needs.
- What changes should be made on a policy level based on these findings?
I think many small steps will be involved. Like so many policy problems, there’s no one magic bullet. Making restaurant meals healthier will involve a lot of local steps, like municipal ordinances and state laws. Massachusetts regulations pioneered how to make restaurants healthier for people with food allergies and we can now do the same for nutrition and portion size. There is also room for many voluntary steps by individuals, including food writers and restaurant reviewers as well as restaurants, groups and associations.
A key first step is to understand that serving excessively large meals causes overeating and diet-related disease. This may sound obvious but it’s not, since many people believe that overeating when served a big meal is just the diner’s fault. A next step is transparency, with menu labeling so customers can know ahead of time how big each dish will actually be. Then there’s right-sizing, through various steps to help restaurants serve more dishes in sizes that fit everyone not just their largest and hungriest customers. Ultimately, I think segregating menus to have some “healthy” or “diet” foods that are served in small portions will be a thing of the past. Almost all menu items can be served in appropriate sizes.
One specific idea to accelerate the transition to transparency and right-sizing many dishes is for local ordinances and state laws to give restaurant diners the right to order a partial portion at partial price. As explained in the paper, we know that restaurants would not like doing that. If such an ordinance were actually passed, most would reduce the default size of their largest dishes for which many customers ask to exercise this right, to avoid having to actually serve too many partial portions at partial prices. They could then adjust other aspects of the menu so that those who decide that they want to eat more can order additional side dishes. The problem of excessively large portion sizes can be solved. A first step is just to realize that it is a problem, to measure what’s served and think carefully about what customers really want.
I hope that’s helpful!
All the best,
This year we had prizes for the best dish in each of five categories, aiming to be as nutritious and delicious as possible while pursuing any one (or more) of the following widely shared goals:
- least monetary cost,
- least preparation time,
- least environmental impact,
- most local or seasonal, or
- most personally meaningful.
From the photo you can see our table of delights. The sourdough rolls on the right won the meaningfulness prize for Kathleen Nay (back row), for a gorgeous story about the sourdough starter that she and her husband began when they were married. Wow.
Sean Cash and Parke Wilde brought their best gastronomic game to the judging, with shoutouts for all the great food ideas of the night. We all ate and drank so well — with an extra jolt for happy winners like Sam Hoeffler, whose prize was a fresh shipment of my personal favorite consumable: coffee, brought home last weekend from Ethiopia.
Lots of fun, thank you all!
New students at the Friedman School have just arrived, and students everywhere are thinking hard about a lot of things. I often get emails from like the one below but they almost never ask so many great questions at once. After replying, I realized that this exchange would make a good blog post. It’s posted here with Abigail Auner’s kind permission and lightly edited for readability: a good intro to a great year of research and discovery ahead.
From: Auner, Abigail Lacey (MU-Student)
Sent: Wednesday, September 2, 2015 8:33 AM
To: Masters, William A. <William.Masters@tufts.edu>
Subject: Hello! (And Sustainability Questions)
Good morning, Dr. Masters,
I am Abigail Auner, Joe’s niece. He told me that you study many of the same topics that I am learning about in school and want to learn more about, so if I may, I would like to ask you a few questions. First off, I study plant sciences at the University of Missouri with an emphasis in greenhouse management, and I am minoring in sustainable agriculture. My career interests include vegetable production and integrated pest management, but I am also trying to learn more about the economics of food, as that is often the weakest link in discussions of sustainability.
The main thing I want to ask is how do you see the future of agriculture? What, in your estimation, are some of the solutions that society must adopt to feed itself without bankrupting itself?
There are certainly countless attempts in progress to solve the food security problem. Lately I have read a bit about indoor agriculture powered by LEDs. This technology has become much more affordable in recent years, and one of the purported benefits is that, since the systems are not weather- or light-dependent, they can be used anywhere in the world. Some companies are creating modular “farm” units in shipping containers, and in Japan there are indoor farms in abandoned subway tunnels. I think this idea holds promise, but I have not seen any numbers on the cost and energy requirements, and these seem like limiting factors, along with training people to use the technology and adapting the systems to regional staples. What do you think of these developments?
Another facet of food in which I am intrigued is entomophagy. I studied abroad in Thailand over an intersession a couple of years ago, and there I had the opportunity to eat roasted crickets. They were surprisingly like potato chips, only with more crunch and protein. And recently there have been several new companies starting to purvey either food-grade insect products (like flour, protein bars, or corn chips) or insect-rearing kits for home production. Do you think that insect production has a viable future in the United States?
Also, what is the food system like in Zimbabwe?
I appreciate your time.
B.S., Greenhouse Production – Expected May 2016
President, University of Missouri Horticulture Club
Greenhouse Assistant, University of Missouri
From: Masters, William A.
Sent: Wednesday, September 2, 2015 11:35 AM
To: Auner, Abigail Lacey (MU-Student)
Subject: RE: Hello! (And Sustainability Questions)
Hello Abigail, nice to see this from you. All great questions. Way too deep for email… more like phd dissertation topics, but here goes:
— future of agriculture
Much like the past, only more so: that is, agriculture’s share of human activity has shrunk to occupy about half of world’s total workforce, and that share will keep declining as economies develop. For those who remain farmers and others involved in agriculture to meet the needs of all those non-farmers, within planetary boundaries, we will need lots of innovations tailored to ever-changing local conditions. Much of that innovation will be about producing more with less, but higher-income consumers also demand a lot of things other than food from our farmers especially animal welfare and the maintenance of traditional methods, as well as basics of water quality and other ecosystem services. So agriculture as a whole is a big and diverse thing that meets a lot of human needs, in different ways, and there is room for many seemingly contradictory things at once.
— urban farming, LEDs and hydroponics etc.
One key need being met by modern agriculture is a sense of control, as people seek more closed-loop systems, and momentum from novelty and innovation. Hence urban farming, driving photosynthesis with artificial lights and deliberate dosing of plant nutrients. Another deep human need is a sense of connectedness to nature, hence organically farmed community and school gardens etc., as well as suburban farm-stands and pick-your-own operations. But as you might guess, these are all pretty expensive ways of producing food as such, and in places where niche agriculture is cost-effective it often exploits an unusual local opportunity such as using waste disposal to heat greenhouses. So if one is actually talking about food security for the US or the world as such, almost all peoples’ dietary needs are now and will continue to be met from the vast expanse of natural soil, bathed in sunlight and rainfall and irrigation, with increases in output per acre and per worker coming from innovations such as precision farming and satellite/drone imagery etc. as well as crop genetics, veterinary techniques, disease control etc. that help us grow more on the fixed stock of natural land and water. That’s not to say that high-tech urban farming with LEDs, alongside organic farms and gardens, are not really important parts of the food system. It’s just that they should be understood as part of agriculture that gives it richness and diversity, not the main source of sustenance. They are the appetizer or dessert rather than the main course. I am glad we have them and they fill real needs but I don’t eat them every day.
Very fun. Humanity is still young and it is very important to keep trying new foods, which are often old but neglected ones like crickets and also plants such as amaranth, as well as new food processing tricks like turning peas into egg-like substances. Regarding insects in particular, it is conceivable that crickets or other species will take off. The last huge breakthrough in the mix of species that we use for food happened in the mid-late 20th c. with hybrid corn and then soybeans and canola providing the vegetable oils and animal feeds that had earlier been super scarce and are now much cheaper… Changes in the mix of species tend to happen gradually, e.g. the rise of chicken relative to beef that is going on now, partly as a slow response to the corn-soy-vegetable fats revolution. And because agriculture is such a geographically patchy, diverse thing, even a niche enterprise can survive and become a pretty big business. So there will be plenty of interest in new sources of protein and higher-quality fats. I don’t think that I personally would invest my own time and money in an insect farm, since there is so much room for expansion of fish from aquaculture to meet similar needs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if insect-based dishes show up on more and more restaurant menus. There are plenty of obstacles to both raising and processing them — which is part of the point whenever one is pursuing something challenging.
Also, what is the food system like in Zimbabwe?
Terrible. Really tragic. And it looks like things will get worse before they get better:
Now back to work for me, but these are really interesting questions so merit much thought than email allows. Please stay in touch, maybe especially if you’re considering going deeper into all of this with grad school!
All the best,
William A. Masters
Professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
and Department of Economics (by courtesy)
Tufts University, 150 Harrison Avenue, Boston MA 02111
Office: Jaharis Building room 140, phone +1.617.636.3751, fax +1.617.636.3781
Mobile: +1.617.575.9050 (forwards to cell/home and converts voicemail to email)
A fun feature of NUTR 238 is our annual econ-of-food potluck dinner, to celebrate the privileges of modern food culture. So many choices! The idea is to show off our amazing dietary optimization skills, with prizes for the best dish in each of several categories.
We start with the oldest challenge in the economics of nutrition, with the dish that best contributes to a least-cost diet. We also have a prize for meeting nutrient requirements with the least environmental impact, and another for meeting your RDAs with the most cultural significance. And, lest we forget life’s most implacable constraint, a prize for doing so with the least preparation time. We had serious economists judging the contest, Sean Cash and Anna McAlister, but very unserious prizes: what my wife Diane calls the universal food.
Here are the winners: From left, Anna (judge), Krista Zillmer (for a spectacular Spaghetti Squash Chow Mein) , Quinault Childs (for delicious cricket-flour cookies), Sean and me (with prizes), Aaron Shier (bowing to Milky Way Day) and Kristen Caiafa (for a bag of what is really, truly the global standard in least-cost nutrition).
Of course we also had many other wonderful dishes, from Iyamide’s Sierra Leonean stew to Ashley’s classic carrot cake. As you can see from the detritus on the table, we ate it all.
Happy spring break, everyone!
PS: NUTR 238 alumni can check out past potluck photos here.
It’s January 2nd, time to get ready for the year’s firehose of food-related news and data.
Our daily challenge is to make sense of events, without retreating into a comfy filter bubble. Economics can help with that. For students registered in NUTR 238 our course website is now up. Class will start on January 15th, and eventually get into news analysis exercises to diagram the economic principles behind current events, and data analysis exercises to visualize comparisons over time and across countries. Before then, or if you’re just browsing, here are some shout-outs to some numbery news sources for the year ahead:
— My vote for best newspaper innovation of 2014 goes to the New York Times’ Upshot, whose launch was itself newsworthy. Among their great food stories last year were the Fried Calamari Index, and What 2000 Calories Looks Like.
— One media surprise was the rise and rise of podcast journalism. Not just Serial, but also the great Planet Money and NPR econo-news , with fun food stories like Why is Milk in the Back of the Store, and When Do Chefs Buy Generic Foods?
— The dataverse just gets denser and denser, with better and better data visualization. My vote for best quick advice is these great posts about how to clear off the table and remove to improve. In class we’ll see a ton of numbers, try hard to avoid numbo-jumbo,and do our best to be use data thoughtfully like this great chart on how gluten diverged from celiac.
The food world is full of surprises – so keep an eye on food-related news with sites like the food, nutrition and agriculture sources to your right, and if you’re enrolled in NUTR 238, use this blog to share what you find.
Happy new year!
Amazing photos. Who knew that breakfasts could be so colorful and varied? And seeing all these examples side by side reveals a lot about food choice.
Clearly, price and income does matter, but so does tradition and the personality of each individual child and their family.
One big influence on food choice that’s nicely illustrated by these examples is the difference between weekend and weekday breakfasts. The weekday breakfasts are really rushed, more like least-time meals than least-cost.
It turns out that meals are so much better when we have more time to prepare and eat them. Once people reach a high enough level of income to afford the nutrients we need, time allocation becomes as important as cash expenditure — and that tradeoff is especially visible at breakfast.
A lot of economists these days are very interested in how nutrition is influenced by our time use, with research on issues such as how mothers’ employment influences childhood obesity in the US, contributing to a global trend towards time-scarcity.
One of the biggest challenges in food policy is how to make food that not only nutritious, but also quick and convenient. Any ideas?
On the T this week, just before the start of new school year studying food choices, I just loved seeing these two ads next to each other:
|From Drop Box|
Our food system offers many wonderful contrasts like this: sometimes we can spend a leisurely Sunday exploring fresh, traditional and local food — but sometimes we want a jolt of fast, new caffeinated drinks from far away. My own fridge is full of such contradictions. Care to guess what opposites might lurk in there?
NYT article here.
What do you think the reaction will be, for both consumers, and for producers who currently use trans fats in their products? What do you think of the proposed ban?
Hello everyone! I researched the topic of colony collapse disorder on honey bee colonies in the United States for my midterm project. While this topic has been around for several years, the importation of foreign bees has begun more recently. This importation has altered the economic impact of declining populations of honey bees in America. You can watch my video presentation here:
I hope you enjoy learning about this topic!
There were three economists who shared the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences this year, and one of them was Robert Shiller, a professor at Yale. He is interviewed by the Washington Post here.
Their topic area is financial markets, so it’s not explicitly food related…but in the interview, Professor Shiller discusses his views on rationality…an important assumption underpinning many economic models, including the ones we use in class. He says, “When I look around, I see a great deal of foolishness, and I can’t believe it’s not important economically.” He’s also skeptical of the idea that everyone will properly manage their retirement savings…people are mired in habit and inertia and you’d need to allocate lots of time and energy to making financial decisions.
These ideas can be related to food economics too…quite clearly on the consumption side, and also on the production side. People do irrational things all the time when it comes to the foods they buy and eat. Habits and psychology are significant drivers of food and health decisions, as any RD or MD can tell you. So…what do you think? Are people rational when it comes to food decisions? Are people each “rational” in their own way, making it hard for economists to model their decisions? Or, are people just not rational at all, and driven mostly by urges and habits when it comes to food? Does it depend on the person? How might the answer affect food policy?
I also appreciate Prof. Shiller’s general skepticism and love of facts.
We’ll get more into this topic area when we talk about market failures later.
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