The Economics of Wasteful Foods

1) Cooking time for regular oatmeal: 4-5 minutes.

2) Cooking time for "quick oats" (essentially regular oats cut up into slightly smaller pieces): 2-3 minutes.

3) Cooking time for instant oats, which are pre-flavored, have the texture and consistency of glue and cost as much as 3-4 times per serving as regular oats: 1-2 minutes.
After reading the information above, can you tell me why, as a society, we manufacture and sell "foods" like instant oats?

They're a textbook example of a second-order food. They cost more--up to 42c per serving, vs. 9-10c for generic oats and 13-14c for branded oats. And, arguably, they taste worse.

Are we really that busy? And is it a good use of society's collective time to save two minutes at the cost of triple the money? (Um, especially when there's a solid chance the average person is likely to waste those minutes many times over by watching TV or obsessively checking email?)

Why do I bring this up? Well, the other day my wife and I were having a deep conversation on the value proposition of various types of oats (hey, the fun never stops here at Casual Kitchen), and the conversation climaxed with yet another of Laura's pithy sayings:

"You know, instant oats are a metaphor for everything that's wrong with our civilization."

I think she might be right. So, I'll ask it again: Why do foods like this exist?

Here's the short answer: they exist because it's a free country. When you live in a free country, you'll find many of the foods on your grocery store shelves aren't all that tasty, healthy or even tolerable. Some of them cost appalling amounts of money and will kill you if eaten to excess. And don't try to tell me you don't have your own horrendously unhealthy food that's your guilty pleasure (mine is Cool Ranch Doritos).

The thing is, these foods don't exist to please you, they exist for the people who buy and sell them.

In a free society, neither you nor the government gets to decide what foods stores can sell. Nobody gets to tell people what they can or cannot buy. If people want to buy Fruit Roll-Ups, chlorinated pre-made mixed salads, Velveeta, Marshmallow Fluff, ranch dressing or mayonnaise, it's their right.

Yep, that brief list of vile foods I just quoted (and listed in order of increasing vileness in a subtle example of my subclinical OCD) is part and parcel of our free society. Hey, freedom ain't always pretty.

Back to oatmeal. Look, if you can get past the taste and texture, regular "old-fashioned" oatmeal is perhaps the easiest and most laughably cheap breakfast out there. I can't stand oatmeal in any form, but I make it nearly every morning for Laura. It keeps her full for hours, costs pennies, and helps manage her above-average cholesterol. Some might even consider it evidence that I'm a halfway decent husband.

But think about it: if the food industry had its wits about it, it should be charging more for regular oats. Call them "unprocessed oats," promote their all-natural taste and texture, tout the health benefits and the high fiber levels--and then charge triple the price. They could make humble oatmeal into yet another aspirational good, and millions of people would happily pay up for it!

I can hear the ad now, with a testimonial spoken by an earnest-looking, blonde, thirty-something actress: "My parents and I ate instant oats, but I think it's worth it for my family--and especially for my kids--to experience the superior taste, quality and health benefits of natural, unprocessed oats."

Sadly, this kind of marketing is also part and parcel of a free society, as are consumers who mindlessly internalize and obey said marketing. And heck, it was so easy to come up with that ad copy that it makes me wonder why I spent all those years working on Wall Street.

But here's the bottom line. Free economic systems, just like free societies, produce both traps and opportunities. Casual Kitchen readers know this. They know, for example, that there are pricing idiosyncrasies ripe for the taking throughout the food industry (a perfect example would be to eat plain oatmeal at pennies a serving while skipping the $5 box of tooth-achingly sweet cereal). CK readers also know that instant oats are just another hilarious example of a second-order food, with extra branding and processing costs that they do not need to pay.

It can surprisingly easy to beat the free-market food industry at its own game, but you have to be awake and aware. You must keep your mind open to creative ideas and solutions, and you must avoid whining and giving your power away to the evil food industry. Remember, freedom means we are empowered to make our own choices.

Let me add a final tangent to this oddly tangent-laden post: by far the vilest breakfast food I've eaten in my life was a big bowl of ńĆokolino (pronounced Choh coh LEE no) that I tried in Slovenia back in 2008. The taste and texture were indescribable--the best I can say is it tasted like a foamy and slightly rancid protein shake.

Was this yet another free-market food? Another metaphor for the decline of society? Well, no, not exactly. This "food" was a relic from the former Yugoslavia, back when it was under Tito's dictatorship!

I guess Winston Churchill was right when he said democracies produce the worst food, except for all the other forms of government.

Readers, what processed foods really turn your stomach? Would you ban them (warning: trick question) if you had the power to?

Related Posts:
Why Do Products Go On Sale?
Who Really Holds the Power in Our Food Industry?
Survivor Bias: Why "Big Food" Isn't Quite As Evil As You Think It Is
Let Them Eat Cake! Thoughts About Wealth, Power and the Food Industry

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Emmy said...

Oh! How about coffee whitener? Some people call it nondairy creamer. Sorry, my ick factor on that went through. the. roof. when I read off the list of ingredients. It's a bloody corn/chemical cocktail! Whatever happened to just using milk or half & half for your daily java fix?

Would I ban it? Absolutely. No nutritional redeeming quality, expensive, and tasteless. I'd be doing the world a favor!

Laura said...

I try to only eat steel-cut oats, but the way you worded your descriptions made me wonder: are quick oats really that bad? Sounds like they're just cut smaller, but no extra chemicals/sugar/etc...

Daniel said...

Emmy, that's a good one. I always feared and loathed nondairy creamer too. Once again, though, it exists on our store shelves because people want it and for whatever reason are willing to pay for it. Yet another trap Casual Kitchen readers can easily avoid.

Laura: Agreed, quick oats are essentially identical to regular, unprocessed oats. The contrast I'm trying to draw (and the point I'm trying to make) is solely with instant oats.

Readers, what other least favorite processed foods can you share?


Laura said...

I cringe when I see people buy packaged salad dressing, marinades, and sauces. SO EASY TO MAKE! I have a few little plastic containers that I use to make individual servings whenever I have a salad, which lets me have whatever I'm in the mood for without having to fill my refrigerator with bottles that never seem to get used up.

I also don't get the appeal of frozen dinners. Just freeze your leftovers whenever you DO have the time the cook and you have your own (healthy) version.

Diane said...

Well, I wouldn't ban any food, even faux-foods. If you cab ban creamer you can ban non-pasturized eggs. It's a slippery slope once you open the door to banning anything. I'm kind of a food libertarian.

However, I don't have to spend my good money on insanely stupid stuff. I totally agree on the non-dairy creamer - eewwwwwwww...I also really loathe Kool-Aid type drink powders (although the orange ones are awesome for cleaning out the dishwasher - just use it instead of powder for one cycle).

For me, I think boxed cereal is kind of the biggest "con" ever (convenience or confidence trick, either way). I eat savory food for breakfast, and it's super cheap. Egg sandwiches (with home-made pita bread), kicheree (pennies a serving and a complete protein), leftover curry and rice, etc etc. I recently had a house guest and bought some healthy-type raisin bran for her and was shocked at the cost.

edj3 said...

I added a link to this article too, Dan, I'm just pimping you all over the place!

Daniel said...

Laura, absolutely! Making them yourself is easy and scalable, even for a person living alone.

Diane: exactly... I think you caught my drift as to the nature of my "trick question." PS: Orange drink powder in the dishwasher? Seriously?

Kx3: Thank you! I am happy to have any of my articles pimped out. Links are the currency of the internet. I'm happy you've both enjoyed and made good use of the content I'm creating here at CK.


Dave said...

Instant oatmeal is right up there with pre-made guacamole in my book. You want pre-made guac? Here, it's called an avocado and a fork.

Jared dressings are on that list too. Vinegar + oil + herbs + shaky shaky = done.

With some other foods it's harder to figure out what the cons are on convience. I am guilty of keeping a jar of commercial mayo around for recipes where it's not in the staring role - it's quick, easy and doesn't break down as fast and home made.

Little Les said...

I get that it's fun to beat the free market food industry at it's own game, and I understand why people would rather make their own healthier, tastier food, for generally less money. I also hate non-dairy creamer (always bummed when I go to a meeting and they have coffee but no real milk) and I think fruit rollups are weird.

But what I don't understand is why the "cringe" factor comes into play when OTHER PEOPLE buy the pre-made, pre-packaged stuff. Who cares what other people buy? It's a free country...

bashtree said...

Something that really gets my goat is these souped-up 'water' products. Vitamin Water, for example. Fruit20 (which my family consumed by the case when I was in high school). Smart Water. My brother is notoriously dehydrated, so he drinks 'smart water' all the time. Because it doesn't have any chlorine in it, you see.

Melissa said...

I understand why it's a trick question. Both you and Diane addressed the slippery slope. And yet... yet... I would ban soda given the chance. Or just, I don't know, somehow make sure it never got invented at all. It's horrid and it has no value.

Second order foods in general are forbidden in my home. Anything I can make better myself I have come to loathe paying for... and yet I will buy bread and salad dressing (yes, Dan, still) because I simply want that convenience. I just cannot face doing absolutely everything myself.

Daniel said...

Thanks everyone for starting up another interesting conversation.

I guess my whole point is to highlight the senselessness of paying 3x or 4x the price for something that offers minimal convenience--like saving 1-2 minutes in the case of instant oats.

A bottle of vitamin water vs a glass of orange juice, or homemade guac vs overpriced, preservative-laden store-made stuff, are similar examples.

As always, it's a personal choice what items you consider worth it or not. My hope is that everyone makes an active and mindful choice, not so much that they'd choose the things I'd like them to choose.

What other thoughts do people have on this subject?


Milehimama @ Mama Says said...

I just posted a similar comparison on my blog - cream of chicken soup. Crazy easy to make yourself, takes just a minute or two longer than opening a can and heating it up, and 1/3 the cost of Campbell's.

Would I ban it? No, but I would love to ban all those ingredients that make fake food look like real food (Yellow #5 I'm a talkin' to YOU!). Also I would ban HFCS. I haven't ever seen it in a food with good nutritional value and it if we banned HFCS, it would force revisions to the farm bill (since the corn is so heavily subsidized) either saving taxpayers a bundle of money or making room in the budget to subsidize a more diverse harvest.

Joanne said...

I would have to say that my least (and also most) favorite processed food is cereal. when I found out that even cheerios has high fructose corn syrup in it...I had to give it up. All of it. It just made me too upset.

chacha1 said...

Let me share an office funny. Our office has a generously stocked breakroom because our management understands that people can't always get away from their desks to eat. They stock instant oatmeal.

I totally agree with Dan about this stuff: cloyingly sweet, glue-like consistency, unsatisfying: something to eat only in the direst of emergencies. Evidently some of my co-workers felt the same, because suddenly a box of unsweetened quick oats appeared.

I am happy to report that the unsweetened oats are in great demand. Although I did have to go the grocery store to get a measuring cup for dispensing from the bulk container.

I am trying to get to the point of not buying any food products that I could not make myself given the time and space. Meaning, no ingredients only obtainable from a lab.

I wouldn't ban anything. But I think we should tax each step of processing. Why in Hades is bleached, refined flour cheaper than whole-wheat??

Melissa said...

"My hope is that everyone makes an active and mindful choice, not so much that they'd choose the things I'd like them to choose."

That's a great way to phrase that Dan.

Daniel said...

That's a great comment, and I think I might adapt your question on white vs wheat flour in a future post.

For now, I'll just share that many grocers see wheat flour as an aspirational good just like I theoretically suggested "unprocessed oats" could be in this post.

The standard grocery store is a weird place sometimes, and its prices often don't reflect reality. That's when an empowered consumer instinctively seeks out another retail source.


beth said...

Hey... I will defend my instant oatmeal! (...with tongue firmly planted in cheek, mind you...) I'm too lazy to get up any earlier than necessary to get to work, which usually means eating something at my desk for breakfast. And anyone who has every microwaved a bowl of regular oatmeal knows all too well the fun of mopping up said oatmeal when it barrels over the side of the bowl and glues itself to the bottom of the microwave. :-) The hot water from the coffee maker is perfect for instant oats; no mess!

That said, I do intend to hunt down a much, much larger microwave-safe bowl someday soon so that I can go back to taking a storage tub of regular oats (with my side tub of brown sugar for flavor) and eating a healthier, cheaper breakfast without having to worry about mopping up the goo when it boils over.

the michelin project said...

Nice article Daniel. Though I've been guilty of buying second-order foods in the past (and still buy a few of them to this day), I definitely agree. While I'd much rather be at home cooking regular oatmeal and seasoning it to my liking, sometimes I like to keep a few packs at work in case of low blood sugar emergencies. However, I do consider the smell of Lean Cuisines warming up in the office kitchen, the "smell of death" and will never ever go there.

I think this must be similar to people not changing their driving habits too much with the gas costs going up (at least it's like that in SoCal, that is). Even though gas is expensive, it's not expensive enough for them to not start walking and/or carpooling places. So even though the cost is 42 cents more per serving, it's not enough to make people flinch into changing their habits, however, even if you eat it 300/365 days per yr, that's $126 overall (a lot of $).

Letseat said...

While I completely understand the aversion to nondairy creamer and pre-made guacamole, I would say that those items solve a problem. If you don't have access to a refrigerator (say you're camping for an extended time), bring the nondairy creamer. Avocados are somewhat finicky and not always in season, so buy some pre-made stuff. Personally I would forgo the coffee for a few days and wait until avocados are in season, but I can see why the alternatives would be considered useful for people. For me, bottled vinaigrette would be harder to justify since most people already have the ingredients on hand anyway.

Milehimama @ Mama Says said...

Wasn't the no-fridge solved by powdered milk, which is basically an actual food product?

Marcia said...

Want to know something really funny? Your blog had an ad for instant blueberry Quaker oatmeal on this post when I read it.

Linda Woodrow said...

I have a list of things that, well, I wouldn't ban, but I do have a lot of contempt for the people who sell them. Especially when the marketing is directed at kids - as it so often is - unprincipled scammers targeting the easy mark. Muesli bars, poppers, breakfast cereals, non-dairy dessert fake yoghurt stuff, pre-sliced plastic cheese.... I could go on, it's a long list!! There's a lot of what economists call "externalities" in this business, the cost of which the whole society has to bear. So while banning might be counterproductive, I think the costs of disposing of excess packaging, toxins in the food chain, public health etc should be sent home to them.

Brigid said...

All these foods have their places. I admit to eating muesli bars—fairly healthy ones—because they are neat and portable and I'm always starving at 10 a.m.

Regarding the oatmeal: Don't microwave your oats and water together in a bowl. Bad move! What I do on oatmeal days is put the oats in a thermos along with nuts, dried fruit, etc., microwave some milk (you could use water), pour it in, and close. By the time I'm ready for the oatmeal, the oatmeal is ready for me.

I haven't tried this, but it seems like if you simply put the oats in a bowl and added hot milk or water they would be ready in five minutes or so, maybe a little longer. This wouldn't work with steel-cut oats but old-fashioned should be OK.

Daniel said...

More great thoughts, thank you readers! A few reactions:

The Michelin Project: Thanks for your input. It's obviously in the food industry's interest to price these product at a price where convenience meets perceived value for the consumer. Nobody would buy things like instant oats if they cost $5 a packet for example. By the way, this is a concept that the consumer can at times use to his advantage.

I agree that these types foods solve certain problems, as Letseat says. And if instant oatmeal or non-dairy creamer (or whatever) serves a purpose for you, by all means use it for that purpose.

But also be aware that if you make a choice to use these "foods" you may be incurring other costs, some direct and immediate, others indirect and down the road--this is Linda Woodrow's point.

And as Milehimama suggests, there may be still other solutions that may be cheaper and better. Don't just passively take what the food/consumer products industry gives you.

Marcia: LOL! I guess that's one of the ironic drawbacks of Adsense ads that draw their "relevance" from text on the page. Fortunately, the advertiser doesn't incur an expense unless somebody clicks, and something tells me very few readers would click that particular ad. :)

Linda, I hear you. But please keep in mind that the fault isn't all on the food industry's side. It can't be. They sell us what we buy. It's up to us to decide what our children eat and what we eat. It's not up to them. I've written on this subject elsewhere in CK and I'll be bringing it up again in an upcoming series I'm working on (it will be called "Understanding the Consumer Products Industry"--look for it!)


MCM Voices said...

Ironically, my husband's choice to change his driving habits led to his use of instant oats. He decided to stop driving and start taking the bus, and since that adds time to his commute and he is so not a morning person, he eats breakfast at work and would always have those packets of oatmeal. But I recently suggested he take quick cooking oats and maple sugar instead and he's adjusting to it. The next hurdle is the instant cocoa he likes to drink mid-morning at work. He likes it because it doesn't seem to bother his lactose intolerance. I don't know what to do about this one - homemade mixes don't seem to mix very well, although I haven't tried it with KLIM (whole milk powder available at Latin America grocery stores) which seems to be a finer powder.

Dan, what is it about mayonnaise that you consider so vile? It's just oil and egg yolks. Hardly a reason to put it in bed with Velveeta!