Results for “food”
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The changing economics of food fraud

Vansteenkiste says: “In former days, we had fake champagne, vodka, Johnnie Walker whisky. What we see now is day-to-day consumer goods, [things like] tomato juice and orange juice. You wouldn’t expect it for a low-priced item like tomato juice — for God’s sake, why would they fake it? The answer is people don’t expect it to be cheated, and the profit is very low, but people drink more tomato juice than champagne.”

Tomato juice is usually adulterated by diluting a famous brand name with a cheaper product. Chocolate, coffee and cookies are also targets, says Vansteenkiste.

That is from an excellent Natalie Whittle feature article at the FT.

Sound makes your food taste different

In a live demonstration conducted in 2006 with the celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, Spence found that when people were served a scoop of bacon-and-egg ice cream accompanied by the sound of sizzling bacon they described the taste of the ice cream as much more “bacony” than subjects whose consumption was accompanied by the clucking of chickens. This insight—that the appropriate soundtrack can intensify the flavor of a food—inspired Blumenthal’s iconic “Sound of the Sea” dish, for which diners at his restaurant, the Fat Duck, in Bray, are presented with an iPod loaded with a recording of crashing waves and screeching gulls to listen to while enjoying an artfully presented plate of seafood. The effect could be used similarly, Spence said, to design soundtracks that replace some of the lost flavor of food for the elderly.

That is from Nicola Twilley in The New Yorker, interesting throughout.

Where to park your food truck?

Here is Eliot Abrams, doctoral student at the University of Chicago who is working on modeling food truck behavior:

Modeling food truck parking locations is complex, as there are around 70 active food trucks parking at more than 30 locations in Chicago. Thankfully, there is plenty of data because food trucks need to advertise their locations. Since 2011, Andrew Violette, who runs ChicagoFoodTruckFinder.com, has been tracking the city’s food trucks based on their Twitter feeds. I pulled 34,328 parking records from Violette’s website and created a simulation of how food trucks park.

This exercise translates the observed food truck movements into information on the relative number of customers a truck serves at each location on a given day. The number of customers is a function of many variables, such as the day of the week and the location chosen by the truck. I focus on estimating how customer traffic is impacted by the number and diversity of other trucks parking at the location and by the past frequency with which the truck has parked at the particular location. Just like Hotelling’s ice cream vendors, food trucks should (and do) choose their locations in response to these dynamics in order to maximize their profit.

As part of the same symposium, here is, Drew Davis, Booth MBA and most importantly a guy who runs food trucks:

In Wrigleyville, we ended up getting a lot of people out for Sunday strolls, running errands. We’re near a drugstore and a grocery store. By experimenting, we got to the right answer. We don’t want to be a destination in itself. We’d much rather make ourselves part of people’s everyday experience, a part of their lives.

At Booth, there’s always the question: Does the data exist and can I get it?  I could generate data from our truck sales. But you can really only compare results if the day of the week was the same, the spot was the same, and the weather was the same. By the time you’ve made all those cuts in the data, the analysis would be horrendous. I work much better with stories.

Read the whole thing, Chad Syverson opines as well.

Free Market Food Banks

Feeding America, the third largest non-profit in the United States, distributes billions of pounds of food every year. Most of the food comes from large firms like Kraft, ConAgra and Walmart that have a surplus of some item and scarce warehouse space. Feeding America coordinates the supply of surplus food with the demand from food banks across the U.S..

Allocating food is not an easy problem. How do you decide who gets what while taking into account local needs, local tastes, what foods the bank has already, what abilities the banks have to store food on a particular day, transportation costs and so forth. Alex Teytelboym writing at The Week points out:

…Before 2005, Feeding America allocated food centrally, and according to its rather subjective perception of what food banks needed. Headquarters would call up the food banks in a priority order and offer them a truckload of food. Bizarrely, all food was treated more or less equally, irrespective of its nutritional content. A pound of chicken was the same as a pound of french fries. If the food bank accepted the load, it paid the transportation costs and had the truck sent to them. If the food bank refused, Feeding America would judge this food bank as having lower need and push it down the priority list. Unsurprisingly, food banks went out of their way to avoid refusing food loads — even if they were already stocked with that particular food.

This Soviet-style system was hugely inefficient. Some urban food banks had great access to local food donations and often ended up with a surplus of food. A lot of food rotted in places where it was not needed, while many shelves in other food banks stood empty. Feeding America simply knew too little about what their food banks needed on a given day.

In 2005, however, a group of Chicago academics, including economists, worked with Feeding America to redesign the system using market principles. Today Feeding America no longer sends trucks of potatoes to food banks in Idaho and a pound of chicken is no longer treated the same as a pound of french fries. Instead food banks bid on food deliveries and the market discovers the internal market-prices that clear the system. The auction system even allows negative prices so that food banks can be “paid” to pick up food that is not highly desired–this helps Feeding America keep both its donors and donees happy.

Food banks are not bidding in dollars, however, but in a new, internal currency called shares.

Every day, each food bank is allocated a pot of fiat currency called “shares.” Food banks in areas with bigger populations and more poverty receive larger numbers of shares. Twice a day, they can use their shares to bid online on any of the 30 to 40 truckloads of food that were donated directly to Feeding America. The winners of the auction pay for the truckloads with their shares. Then, all the shares spent on a particular day are reallocated back to food banks at midnight. That means that food banks that did not spend their shares on a particular day would end up with more shares and thus a greater ability to bid the next day. In this way, the system has built-in fairness: If a large food bank could afford to spend a fortune on a truck of frozen chicken, its shares would show up on the balance of smaller food banks the next day. Moreover, neighboring food banks can now team up to bid jointly to reduce their transport costs.

Initially, there was plenty of resistance. As one food bank director told Canice Prendergast, an economist advising Feeding America, “I am a socialist. That’s why I run a food bank. I don’t believe in markets. I’m not saying I won’t listen, but I am against this.” But the Chicago economists managed to design a market that worked even for participants who did not believe in it. Within half a year of the auction system being introduced, 97 percent of food banks won at least one load, and the amount of food allocated from Feeding America’s headquarters rose by over 35 percent, to the delight of volunteers and donors.

Teytelboym’s very good, short account is working off a longer, more detailed paper by Canice Prendergast, The Allocation of Food to Food Banks.

Canice’s paper would be a great teaching tool in an intermediate or graduate micro economics class. Pair it with Hayek’s The Use of Knowledge in Society. Under the earlier centralized system, Feeding America didn’t know when a food bank was out of refrigerator space or which food banks had hot dogs but wanted hot dog buns and which the reverse–under the market system this information, which Hayek called “knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place” is used and as a result less food is wasted and the food is used to satisfy more urgent needs.

The Feeding America auction system is also the best illustration that I know of the second fundamental theorem of welfare economics.

Even monetary economics comes into play. Feeding America created a new currency and thus had to deal with the problem of the aggregate money supply. How should the supply of shares be determined so that relative prices were free to change but the price level would remain relatively stable? How could the baby-sitting co-op problem be avoided? Scott Sumner will be disappointed to learn that they choose pound targeting rather than nominal-pound targeting but some of the key issues of monetary economics are present even in this simple economy.

The poor rely on fast food the least

New data, released by the Centers for Disease Control, show that America’s love for fast food is surprisingly income blind. Well-off kids, poor kids, and all those in between tend to get about the same percentage of their calories from fast food, according to a survey of more than 5,000 people. More precisely, though, it’s the poorest kids that tend to get the smallest share of their daily energy intake from Big Macs, Whoppers, Chicken McNuggets, and french fries.

That is from Robert Ferdman.  By the way:

More than a third of all children and adolescents living in the country still eat some form of fast food on any given day, a number which hasn’t budged in decades, according to the CDC.

And many children are getting alarmingly high proportions of their diet from chicken nuggets and french fries. About a quarter of all kids in the United States get 25 percent of their calories from fast food. And 12 percent of kids get more than 40 percent of their calories from fast food.

Is food the new music? (sentences to ponder)

Food has replaced music at the heart of the cultural conversation for so many, and I wonder if it’s because food and dining still offer true scarcity whereas music is so freely available everywhere that it’s become a poor signaling mechanism for status and taste. If you’ve eaten at Noma, you’ve had an experience a very tiny fraction of the world will be lucky enough to experience, whereas if you name any musical artist, I can likely find their music and be listening to it within a few mouse clicks. Legally, too, which removes even more of the caché that came with illicit downloading, the thrill of being a digital bootlegger.

Once, it felt like watching music videos on MTV was a form of rebellion in plain sight. Nowadays, the channel doesn’t play any music videos. Instead, we have dozens of food and cooking shows, even entire channels like The Food Network dedicated to the topic. Chefs have become elevated to the status of master craftsmen, with names that have risen above the status of their restaurants, and diners revere someone like Jiro of Jiro Dreams of Sushi fame the way a previous generation worshipped the guitar sound of a rock god like Jimi Hendrix.

The food scene today offers a seemingly never-ending supply of scarce experiences, ingredients, and dishes. Cronuts you have to wait in line for a few hours to get your hands on. Pop-up restaurants that serve only on a few nights a week for a few weeks, then disappear forever. Restaurants that you have to sacrifice a goat to just to get a reservation, and then they’ll actually take that goat you killed and prepare your entire dinner from it, nose to tail. A white truffle add-on that tacks $80 on to a single piece of cured hamachi, and oh, the truffle is only available for four weeks a year and came over on a gondola from Alba, Italy, and the hamachi is one of the last of three members of its species so you know, you should probably try it before…oops, sorry, the chef says someone just ordered the last of it. Yep, it’s that couple at the corner table, and that’s the last plate that she’s Instagramming right now.

That is from Eugene Wei, with more of interest at the link, via Graham Rowe.

If you could know only one thing about a city’s food scene…

No, it is not knowledge of the city’s best dish, nor is it access to all the Yelp reviews, or even an understanding of how the spices in that cuisine work together.

I have a simple nomination.  If you could only know one thing about a city, you would like to know what time the best and most popular restaurants fill up.

If you know that time, you can walk around a restaurant-rich area.  Wait for the best places to start filling up, and then make your move and muscle your way through the door.  Voila, the wisdom of crowds!

If you come too early, you cannot glean information from watching the customer flow because there isn’t any.  If you come too late, the best places are already full, or they have lines which are too long.  But if you are there at just the right time, and attentive to the movement of the crowds, what really can go wrong?

In Singapore the best time to start stalking the hawker centres is about 10:30 a.m., certainly no later than 11.  Otherwise the lines at the best stalls are simply too long.  Just show up at the right time, and assume the Singaporeans know what they are doing.  It works.  In Paris you must be looking for a good lunch restaurant before 12:30.

It is a common theme in food economics that knowledge of people, or knowledge of social mechanisms, is often more valuable than knowledge of food.  Knowing whom to ask and also how to ask is also often more valuable than a detailed knowledge of a cuisine per se.

Rachel Lauden is wise about food

The still-underrated Todd Kliman interviews her:

I’ve been given special powers, and I appoint you czar (funny, isn’t it, how we have so many appointed czars in this unaristocratic country) of food in the US. What is your first order of business? What sorts of laws do you push for? What public statements do you make? What is your 5-year plan? Your 10?

Me? A czar? My first order of business would be to go to the bathroom and throw up in sheer terror. I’m not a fan of appointed czars or of five-year plans. I am a fan of incremental changes. Look what’s happened in the 15 years since I wrote the article. Walmart’s become a major player, so has Monsanto, celebrity chefs, sustainability, and locavore have become household words, fats and sweeteners have been vilified and un-vilified, and now Taco Bell is removing artificial flavoring and coloring, corporations are scrambling to make their products appealing to those who want healthful and organic foods, and McDonald’s is in trouble. No one could have predicted or managed these changes. And many have happened through the power of the word. So I’d turn down the offer. The pen is mightier than the czar!

3-D printed food

Marijn Roovers’ epicurean delights have graced the tables of some of the Netherlands’ finest restaurants. But the food designer’s Chocolate Globe is his most intricate — and technologically advanced — creation. A chocolate shell just 0.8 millimetres thick is embossed in gold with the chocolate’s continent of origin, and it holds delicacies that symbolize the region.

Roovers and chef Wouter van Laarhoven printed it — layer-by-layer of chocolate — on a 3D printer. Roovers is at the forefront of a small group of gourmets and technophiles who want to revolutionize how food is prepared. On 21 April, they will gather in the Netherlands for the first conference dedicated to the 3D printing of food.

But do note this:

3D food printers tend to be slow: Roovers’ chocolate globes, for example, currently take about an hour to print. To prepare one per guest in a restaurant with 40 patrons would take almost 2 days of continuous printing. “It’s not very realistic,” he says. “At the moment it’s a way to show craftsmanship.”

Then there is the matter of texture. Most 3D printers work with either pastes or powders, so the resulting food tends to be mushy, says Julian Sing, founder of 3DChef, a firm near Tilburg, Netherlands, that specializes in 3D printing of sugar. “The food needs to have the right texture,” he says. “It needs to look like food and not like slop.”

There is more here, via Michelle Dawson.

How to find good Iranian food

I hardly ever blog Iran, most of all because I’ve never been there, but perhaps the time has come to serve up the meager amount I do know about the place.  Let’s start with food, here are a few propositions about Iranian food, at least as it is found in the West:

1. Choose a restaurant which has a diversity of rices, such as zereskh polo (rice with barberries).  Or sour cherry rice.  The rice you order is a more important decision than the kabob you order.  Personally, I like to commit the heresy of loading up a tart rice with a gooey yogurt concoction, such as Mast-o-Mosir, spellings on that one will vary greatly.

2. Choose a restaurant with koreshes, namely stews.  The kabobs get boring, Afghan kabobs in this country are usually better anyway, so over time you should end up getting the stews in a Persian restaurant.

3. It is very hard to find Iranian restaurants in the United States which break from the usual medley of offerings.  The good news is that there are very few bad Iranian restaurants around.

4. The best Iranian restaurants in this country are probably those in and near Westwood, Los Angeles, not far from UCLA.

5. If you get Iranian bread, it looks boring.  But load it up with the spicy green sauce, butter, and yes sliced onion.  Then it’s really yummy.  Don’t be put off if your bread shows up cold and embedded in plastic wrap, just add the condiments and it will be yummy.

6. I always like the soups, but in this country opt for “minty” over “barley.”

7. Iranian food in Germany and London is also quite good, I don’t think I have had it elsewhere.

8.  Buying fesenjan sauce out of a can and cooking with it is much tastier than you might think.  This is super-easy and inexpensive.  Fesenjan sauce, in case you don’t know, is a kind of walnut and pomegranate mix, for you vegans it works OK with tofu.

9. At the end of writing this post, my own googling led me to a 2009 post I had written on the same topic but had forgotten about completely, it is here if you wish to compare.  If nothing else, it shows my views on Iranian food are pretty consistent over time, as is the food itself.

All you can eat books vs. all you can eat food

In the book market:

…a new complaint is about Kindle Unlimited, a new Amazon subscription service that offers access to 700,000 books — both self-published and traditionally published — for $9.99 a month.

It may bring in readers, but the writers say they earn less.

Here is some analysis:

“Your rabid romance reader who was buying $100 worth of books a week and funneling $5,200 into Amazon per year is now generating less than $120 a year,” she said. “The revenue is just lost. That doesn’t work well for Amazon or the writers.”

Amazon, though, may be willing to forgo some income in the short term to create a service that draws readers in and encourages them to buy other items. The books, in that sense, are loss leaders, although the writers take the loss, not Amazon.

And when it comes to food?:

New research shows that paying that much for a buffet might actually make the food taste better. Three researchers did an all you can eat (AYCE) buffet field experiment to test whether the cost of an AYCE buffet affected how much diners enjoyed it. They conducted their research at an Italian AYCE buffet in New York, and over the course of two weeks 139 participants were either offered a flier for $8 buffet or a $4 buffet (both had the same food). Those who paid $8 rated the pizza 11 percent tastier than those who paid $4. Moreover, the latter group suffered from greater diminishing returns—each additional slice of pizza tasted worse than that of the $8 group.

“People set their expectation of taste partially based on the price—and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I didn’t pay much it can’t be that good. Moreover, each slice is worse than the last. People really ended up regretting choosing the buffet when it was cheap,” said David Just, professor at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and one of the study’s authors.

In the old days one heard speculation about bundling a great number of newspapers and blogs into a single-price access model, but in retrospect this probably never had much financial potential, for reasons which by now should be clear.  What would an “all-you-can-eat buffet for economists” mean?  And who if anyone would benefit from it?

Food is cheaper in large cities

Eliminating heterogeneity bias causes 97 percent of the variance in the price level of food products across cities to disappear relative to a conventional index. Eliminating both biases reverses the common finding that prices tend to be higher in larger cities. Instead, we find that price level for food products falls with city size.

That is part of an abstract and new paper from Jessie Handbury and David E. Weinstein, via Kevin Lewis.  They have two additional interesting papers on the cost of living here.

Facts about food

Stanford’s Dan Jurafsky has written a book doing just that. In The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Jurafsky describes how he and some colleagues analyzed a database of 6,500 restaurant menus describing 650,000 dishes from across the U.S. Among their findings: fancy restaurants, not surprisingly, use fancier—and longer—words than cheaper restaurants do (think accompaniments and decaffeinated coffee, not sides and decaf). Jurafsky writes that “every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 69 cents in the price of that dish.” Compared with inexpensive restaurants, the expensive ones are “three times less likely to talk about the diner’s choice” (your way, etc.) and “seven times more likely to talk about the chef’s choice.”

Lower-priced restaurants, meanwhile, rely on “linguistic fillers”: subjective words like delicious, flaky, and fluffy. These are the empty calories of menus, less indicative of flavor than of low prices. Cheaper establishments also use terms like ripe and fresh, which Jurafsky calls “status anxiety” words. Thomas Keller’s Per Se, after all, would never use fresh—that much is taken for granted—but Subway would. Per Se does, however, engage in the trendy habit of adding provenance to descriptions of ingredients (Island Creek oysters, Frog Hollow’s peaches). According to Jurafsky, very expensive restaurants “mention the origins of the food more than 15 times as often as inexpensive restaurants.

There is more here, you can pre-order the book here.  My previous posts about this work are here.