Factors that cause shifts in demand: convenience, income

You will bear a vegan’s conceit, today, while I consider this openly (while going to war against an American standard):

Sales of boxed macaroni and cheese, a product category led by Northfield, Ill., based Kraft Foods, have experienced a significant rise.

The product, which debuted 70 years ago, posted 10 percent growth in 2007, due in part to soaring sales of single-serve microwaveable Easy Mac cups, which experienced a 50 percent rise in sales for the year, the Chicago Sun-Times reported Tuesday.

Harry Balzer, vice president of consumer research firm NPD Group, said about one-third of the U.S. population and half of the country’s children will feast on macaroni and cheese at some point during the next two weeks. That number marks a significant increase from 1984, when about 30 percent of the U.S. population and 40 percent of children in the country would have snacked on the popular pasta dish in a two-week period.

The factors affecting demand (i.e. causing, in this instance, an outward shift in the demand curve for macaroni and cheese) are convenience – given the pinning of the increase in popularity on the “Easy Mac” single-serve deal. Tastes, more broadly: I’ve seen more and more such products, for a range of brands, on our supermarket shelf. For all I know Kraft, in fact, may have started that trend.

The other factor, looking forward, is income. I would expect – honestly – something like macaroni and cheese to be an inferior good. I welcome correction on that, though. An inferior good is one with a negative income elasticity of demand: as incomes rise, demand decreases (because the good is inferior, yeah? People buy better/more expensive things instead).

So, facing recession (or facing proof that we’ve been in one since before Christmas), one would expect declining American household fortunes to boost demand for Kraft Mac and Cheese further.

So much for the basic economics. Let’s discuss nutrition (i.e., the part that bothers me). Wandering around the internets, I found nutritional information for the Easy Mac cups:

Easy mac cup

Which earns a “C” from Calorie-Count.com. Also the standard boxed (pre-maid) product:

Boxed mac and chees

Nutritiondata.com gives that one 2/5 for things like “health”.

Now, back at Universal Press, Harry Balzer, vice president of consumer research firm NPD Group, offered this:

“It’s almost always a main meal,” he said.

Ah. Now, I’m skinny and probably don’t eat the average amount for an adult American male (which, of course, I’m not, but (a) here I am, and (b) I imagine the same holds for comparison with Australians). There’s no way I’m going to eat 60 grammes of powdered cheese sauce and instant noodles and call it dinner.

The times that I’ve had to eat microwavable food, I’ve found that standard meals (around 280g) are way too little – 432g (the weight of a lentil soup I keep in the office) isn’t too too bad (allow me to point out that, as a vegan, I read these things as a matter of course: grocery shopping can take a while). Suppose I made an Easy Mac dinner. I’d be looking at about the same.

Conservatively, let’s say I need 420g of the stuff – that’s 6 to 7 Easy Mac cups. Now put that multiplier up against, say, the saturated fats and sodium found in Mac and Cheese. That’s a day’s carbs, a day’s saturated fats, and you just ate a dose of diabetes. All while picking up bugger all in whole grains, dietary fibre, natural minerals or vitamins.

Back at nutritiondata.com,

fullness/nutrition

And this would be where the social gradient in diabetes and obesity comes in. Poor people eat energy-rich, high-caloric, cheap foods. Binding budget constraints and poor education (meaning public health educational interventions) mean that nutrition, for example, does not enter the criteria. Which is why the less-expensive juices (as in fruit juices) in my local supermarket all contain High Fructose bloody Corn Syrup. As do all the family breakfast cereals, all the processed breads – all the basic family foodstuffs.

There is a social gradient to what people eat and call food, and it isn’t pretty.

Interestingly, I found this stuff being sold at Amazon.com, where the comments contain the likes of:

With kids in the house you have to fix Mac & Cheese, it’s just a fact. The regular old mac & cheese takes too long to fix when a starving toddler is having a hunger induced meltdown. A few minutes in the microwave then *voila* warm food to feed the savage toddler. It’s not bad for grown ups either.

Yes, this person recommends feeding a toddler this stuff. Because making the boxed version takes too damn long. And, apparently, opening a jar of Gerber pureed vegetables just makes too damn much sense.

This is great for hungry kids to heat up anytime. My two are only 10 & 11 and they have been using the microwave for a couple of years. This is also great to send off with your college student. They might need a quick meal on those late study nights.

a) if your growing child is hungry, give them food. Give them nutrition; (b) your kid in college is not going to be able to perform well, studying, with this clogging his/her system. Teach them how to eat properly, and stay hydrated, throughout a day. You can’t just give them Mac and Cheese and a bottle of Adderall, and expect them to make it.

And this is a vegan’s conceit. I’m sorry, but there it is. I read all my ingredients, and I’m a Health Economist with a PhD. I earn enough to shop and eat properly, and know enough to do so, and how to do so. I enjoy a rare priviledge, I know. This doesn’t mean that seeing a toddler in a stroller holding crisps in one hand and lucozade in the other doesn’t send me spare.

You want to understand where American competitiveness has gone? This sort of thing will be a reason. These diets make shorter, fatter, sicker, dumber people. It isn’t kind to say so, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

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