Julian Baggini: Coke or milk?

jbFGC has commissioned world-renowned philosopher and author Julian Baggini to give his unique perspective on current discussions within the food industry. In this article, he discusses a topic that is regularly raised – should healthier food automatically be cheaper.

Coke or milk? The interesting question is not which would you choose, but why. And it's not a trivial one, since many believe that children's tendency to opt for sugary pops rather than good old cow juice is one major reason why their teeth are decaying and their waistlines expanding.

The answer many people give is price. In a recent column, Eureka Street's editor Michael Mullins defended the low price of supermarket milk against complaints by farmers saying, "If milk is cheaper than Coke, people will drink more milk and less Coke." This sentiment was echoed by Otago University's head of dental public health, Murray Thomson, who asked rhetorically, “we live in a country where milk is more expensive than Coke now. Where's the sense in that?”

The idea that healthy things ought to be cheaper than unhealthy ones is as odd as the idea that they ought to be tastier. Alas, just as some of the most delicious foods known to humankind are not the best for our health, so the most economically cultivable and manufactured foods are not necessarily the most nutritious. The idea that prices should be set on the basis of nutritional value rather than cost of production would require a kind of dietary Stalinism. Sure, there is no reason why a democratic government can't tweak prices by subsidies or taxing some foods more than others (although both these policies have their problems). But the fact that milk costs more than cola is no more an outrage than that free range pork costs more than factory farmed bacon. Indeed, what is better often is more, not less, expensive.

Irrespective of how prices ought to be set, is it really true that they are a key determinant in whether we eat healthily or not? Price differentials do clearly make some difference to purchasing decisions. Many people, if faced with a $NZ1.50 can of coke or a $NZ6.50 ginseng-infused organic sugar-free soda will consider the latter extravagant, even if, all other things being equal, they would prefer it. But many of the same people would choose a more expensive branded cola over a cheaper supermarket alternative. The reason is simply that they think it's a better product, whatever the results of blind tastings may suggest.

So it would be silly to focus on price without first looking at the more fundamental issue of taste and preference. And if you ask why kids tend to pick coke over milk, the answer seems obvious: they like it more. Humans have evolved to find sweetness attractive because it indicates plentiful, available energy, something that has been in short supply for almost all our history. The Darwinian explanation for the joyful mouth-feel of carbonated liquid is less clear, but it's no doubt real, however we came to acquire it.

The problem is, of course, that the enviable problem of the developed world is no longer scarcity, but excess. If we don't curb our natural tendency to stock up on fats and carbohydrates, including sugars, we just get bigger and bigger, and all sorts of health problems from heart disease to diabetes follow.

The idea that we can fight this simply by making fizzy drinks and sugary foods more expensive looks hopelessly naïve. No one knows what the elasticity of demand is here, but consumers of sweet goodies do not appear to be very price sensitive. Consider, for example, how many people pick a single cold can off the shelf more or less every day when they could have bought a twelve-pack and cut the unit price by more than half. To make sweet foods and shrinks sufficiently expensive that it would deter purchases would mean making them pretty much unaffordable to the less well-off. This would appear to be extremely unjust, since almost everyone appreciates them from time to time. It would be very unsavoury indeed if the better-off were happily ordering deserts from high-end restaurants while others couldn't even afford a Mars Bar.

It is because there is absolutely nothing wrong with regular, moderate consumption of sweet things that the oft-repeated comparison on sugar with tobacco is ill-conceived. Smoking is bad for you, full-stop. But a sweet tooth – or a fondness for alcohol, for that matter– only becomes a vice when indulged to excess. Simply raising prices is therefore unjust because even if it does reduce consumption, with public health gains, it does so by making perfectly respectable human pleasures more inaccessible to the worse-off.

More interesting are recent proposals by Auckland University researcher Gerhard Sundborn to limit the availability of sweet fizzy drinks, by banning them from vending machines in key public spaces such as schools. Despite having voluntarily restricted where it sites vending machine sites, the food industry generally opposes such state-enforced bans. But the case for more such restrictions is not as easily dismissed as some of the calls to set prices. In effect, such a move would be a collective agreement in which society accepts that it has a weakness for certain temptations and so seeks to reduce it. It's a society-wide version of a family agreeing not to keep cookies in the cupboard, to make it easier to resist temptation.

The merit of such a move is that it does not make treats too expensive for anyone, it simply reduces our exposure to them. In that sense it shifts our incentives without infringing on our basic liberties.

There will always be those, especially in the food industry, opposed to any measures that limit what and how they can sell. But when they complain that all such steps unacceptably infringe our liberty, they are on very shaken ground. We already have innumerable regulations about what can be added to foods, how they are labelled, how they must be produced, and so on. If there is a line on the sand when it comes to freedom it is only that people should ultimately be able to eat what they want. That doesn't mean society cannot make some things easier or difficult to obtain. Sundborn claimed that 26 per cent of sugar in the average child's diet is from fizzy drinks, juice, energy drinks and flavoured milk. Even adults get almost as much sugar from soft drinks as from fruit. Simply pulling a few price levers is unlikely to be fair or effective way of changing this, but that does not mean we should not consider other more equitable and practical suggestions.

  • Julian Baggini lives in the United Kingdom and writes regularly on a wide range of issues, including faulty arguments and consumer complaints. Check out his website here.
  • This article was first published in conjunction with FGC on foodnavigator-asia.com