Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘food

Inflation again / Meals for frying

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For another inflation follow-up:

A little more than two weeks ago, I revisited some inflation items from last September ([1]), and noted that the “[m]eals for frying” that I (originally, often; increasingly, rarely) buy had not changed in price in the interim—unlike most others items.

Today, I bought another one, looked at my receipt, and found a horrible 2.99 Euro!

Compared to [1], this is another 11–15 (!) percent* in five (!) months, after the price had already risen by 40 percent or more during the COVID-countermeasure era. Going back to the original price (“1.80-something”), we now have an increase of some 60 percent…** From another perspective, if the same rate of increase continues, the price come next September might close in on twice the original.***

*2.99 vs. “2.60-something”: 2.99/2.60 = 1.15 and 2.99/2.69 > 1.11.

**2.99/1.80 > 1.66; 2.99/1.89 > 1.58.

***Good predictions are impossible, because (a) trends can change, (b) prices, as above, often increase in jerks rather than smaller gradual increases. (In particular, cf. an excursion in [1], there is some chance that breaking the 3-Euro barrier would be too painful for the store.) However, if we assume a reasonably smooth increase, a rate of 13 percent for the previous five months, and add another seven months, then the 2.99 Euro would be scaled by a factor of (1.13)^(7/5), which amounts to approximately 3.55 Euro, while the original price, again, was “1.80-something”.

Fucking politicians!


Written by michaeleriksson

February 22, 2023 at 10:43 am

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McDonald’s and another inflation follow-up

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Disclaimer: The details of the below should be taken with several grains of salt, as I go by memory, as there are great uncertainties about various years and values, and as even a small change in inputs can lead to noticeable changes in outputs. The big-picture illustration of uneven price developments and whatnots holds true, however. (And note that this is really a text about prices in general. McDonald’s and the specific prices of McDonald’s are just the inspiration and illustration—not the underlying topic.)

To give another inflation update ([1]) and some observations around prices:

Earlier today, I made a rare visit to a German McDonald’s and bought two cheese burgers for a total of 3.98 Euro. This amount was so large that I, for a brief moment, believed that the prices had fallen, and that a > 2 Euro per cheese burger had returned below 2 Euro. In actuality, the 2 Euro of my memory was for the pair. (Cf. below.) In other words, we were at almost twice the price that I had “internalized”.*

*This is not the first time that a high current price has temporarily tricked me into, in some sense, misremembering a base price, be it through rapid inflation or through an encounter with an unnecessarily expensive brand or store. A good lesson is to actually think back and find the “true” base price before comparing. (But here it would have made no difference to my decision.)

This simultaneously illustrates the extreme price increases in recent years and how hard it can be to assign a “true” price increase to a “when” (also note an excursion on “mis-yearing” price increases in [2]):

Cheese burgers from McDonald’s were a common food for me and a few friends during our Swedish college days, based on a temporary rebate from 14 (?) SEK to 9 SEK during (maybe) the summer of 1995. To some approximation, this amounts to a nominal 1 Euro per cheese burger.* After a brief rebound to 14, McDonald’s appeared to have seen a business loss and soon went back to 9, which might have remained the price until I left for Germany in 1997.

*As a rough heuristic, a SEK to EUR conversion can be found by dividing by 10, making this approximately 1.4 and 0.9 Euro, respectively—without (!) inflation adjustment. (However, at any given time, the actual exchange rate might be something different. To make the situation more complicated, the Euro was not yet in existence at the time. Also bear in mind that Sweden is generally more expensive in terms of food than Germany, implying that a direct comparison between e.g. 1 Euro’s worth of food in Sweden and Germany can be misleading.)

I do not remember what the early German price (in D-Mark) was, but at some point after the switch to Euro that same 1 Euro was a typical price—and remained stable there for a long time. (I have not kept statistics on McDonald’s products, but I remember finding the comparative lack of price increases at McDonald’s during the “00s” pleasant.)

Beginning in maybe 2012, prices began to increase, and also lost a prior perceived uniformity.* At this juncture, the old two-for-two (the convenience of which had been a contributing reason for my frequent purchases during commuter phases) no longer held, but prices always remained solidly below 3 Euro resp. 1.5 Euro/pc. We might, in a very rough guestimate, have an increase of less than fifty percent in 15 years. (In Germany; looking at my own timeline, including Sweden, it might be 20 years.) Playing with numbers, fifty percent would give an annual average increase of 1.5^(1/15) or roughly 2.7 percent per year, while forty percent gives 1.4^(1/15) or roughly 2.3 percent per year, and thirty 1.8. These numbers are approximately the same as the official inflation goal.**

*I did a lot of commuting between Düsseldorf and Cologne in the few years following, and various items were more expensive in Düsseldorf. My impression prior to this was that prices were virtually the same everywhere. (However, I suspect that the individual restaurants have always had some leeway on paper and just been loath to use it.)

**But they also illustrate how dangerous it can be to see a small difference in a yearly rate and conclude that the long term effects will be small—a common problem with politicians.

However, these calculations assume a uniform increase. If we instead assume 10 years of a fix price + 5 years of increases, we find respectively 8.4, 7, and 5.4 percent per year for five years. On the one hand, this is well above the inflation goals; on the other, it might be argued that McDonald’s was simply catching up after keeping prices artificially low for a prolonged time. Indeed, a 2 percent increase per year (identical to the inflation goal) over 10 years accumulates to 1.02^10, or almost 22 percent, which to that date was not reflected in the price. Then again, the interpretation can depend on whether the original prices were fair or unnecessarily high, as these 22 percent, in the latter case, would have been an implicit reduction in a “too high” price.

With less or no commuting, my McDonald’s visits dropped considerably, and the COVID-countermeasures near killed them. There was a span of maybe two years without even a single visit; and today’s visit might have been the third within the last year.* The last time that I bought my two cheese burgers “pre” might have been in late 2019 or early 2020. I suspect that the price was still below 3 Euro for the pair, but call it exactly 3 Euro resp. 1.5 Euro/pc. Today, February 12th, 2023, I landed at the aforementioned 3.98 Euro resp. 1.99 Euro/pc. Call it 3 years. We then have an average yearly increase of (1.99/1.5)^(1/3) or just shy of 10 percent. However, looking at overall inflation, it began comparatively low in 2020 and has since gradually increased. Assuming the same with McDonald’s prices, we might have an increase very considerably above 10 percent for the last 12 months—and an average of 10 percent is well above the overall official average for the same 3 years. It is, however, not necessarily remarkable compared to some other food-price increases, as discussed in [1] and the preceding texts.

*And others seem to have had a similar reaction: a McDonald’s a few hundred meter from my apartment, next to the local town-center, and in a semi-prime position, seems to have closed permanently during the COVID-countermeasure era.

Excursion on McDonald’s:
As I have noted at some point in the past, fast food has grown increasingly slow. This was certainly the case today: despite a short queue, I had to wait roughly five minutes for my cheese burgers, because these were not ready to go and there was queue of others waiting for their food—a longer one than were waiting to order. This is the more interesting as cheese burgers have, in my experience, been a sure bet: they have almost always been ready to go, even when there has been a delay for e.g. Big Macs; or have become ready sooner, in the unlikely event that they were out. In all fairness, today’s specimens were well above average in quality, but this points to a problem with priorities: McDonald’s is fast food—not gourmet food. Sacrificing speed in an effort to bring up quality kills the concept. (As opposed to bringing up quality while keeping speed constant.) This especially as this particular restaurant is adjacent to a train station (many customers will be in a hurry), and especially as it points to poor planning. To the latter: With better logistics, it should be possible to keep close to “real time” deliveries for the most popular products, while having a high quality, at such times when there is a steady stream of customers. Such a steady stream was present. Nevertheless, there seemed to be a delay of several minutes per order on every order, as the respective orders were cooked “on demand”.

As an aside, staff at McDonald’s seem to have some weird blind spot regarding specifically my cheese-burger orders. If I order any of the full meals, everything is OK. If I order two cheese burgers, half the time, a variation of the following dialogue plays out:

“To go?” (“Zum Mitnehmen?”)

“To eat here.” (“Hier essen.”)

“To go.” (“Zum Mitnehmen.” This in an affirmative tone, implying “Your confirmation of ‘to go’ has been understood.”.)

I give a big sigh and roll my eyes—after which I receive a brown to-go bag, take it to a suitable seat and eat the contents in the restaurant.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 12, 2023 at 7:16 pm

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How starvation could happen (not Malthus)

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There are three different takes on Malthus that I have seen again and again over the years. To paraphrase the respective gist:

  1. Population grows exponentially, while food* supply grows linearly (or otherwise short of exponentially), which will lead to problems in the future. (I think of this as the “school version”; however, note that the names are just my personal short-hands.)
  2. Land* has a certain carrying capacity. If there is a surplus of carrying capacity, e.g. through better technology or a low original population, population will grow until the surplus capacity is used up. (I.e. the “scientific version”.)
  3. Population will grow and grow and grow—and then we will all starve to death!!!!!!!!!!!! (I.e. the “Leftist panic-monger version”.)

*I will mostly focus on land and food, following the typical line; however, I stress that similar issues can apply elsewhere, e.g. relating to water, energy, or even money. Throwing a wider net, we might even have to include e.g. computers—death from not owning a computer is rare, but a deficit in computers can affect productivity and production of various items negatively, leading to problems for the overall economy, the food sector included. Often, a comparison between the population size and the overall economy will, today, be a better measure than e.g. population size and overall food production. Also note that the “Leftist panic-monger version” has parallels in other areas, e.g. energy use.

Now, I have never read Malthus in the original, so I cannot speak for which of these takes, or combinations thereof, most closely matches his claims. (I do suspect that his thoughts were more far more subtle and extensive than either of the takes.) However, the “scientific version” is the most interesting and insightful, especially when combined with the parallel idea that a deficit of carrying capacity, resp. a surplus of population relative the carrying capacity, will lead to a shrinking population.

The “school version” has never convinced me, not even when I was in school. Firstly, population growth is only exponential when there is enough food and whatnot (cf. the “scientific version”).* Secondly, the “linear” part is potentially misleading, as the production is more likely to be proportional to the population size.** Thirdly, it does not consider breakthroughs in productivity sufficiently. (And these breakthroughs have been quite large since Malthus’s days.) Fourthly, the point where arable and could-be-made-arable-with-some-effort land becomes a limit to food production was too far into the future to be truly relevant to Malthus’s era—indeed, I doubt that it is a short-term concern even today. (With similar statements potentially applying to other sources of food than agriculture.) There is a potential problem of a time delay, however, in that making land arable can take time and in that a growing new generation will want food from day one but will only work at an adult productivity 15-or-so years later. Such a delay can, of course, be problematic in any era.

*Generally, exponential models are usually only true (if at all!) for sufficiently small increases and/or time spans, after which constraints make growth sub-exponential and the models flawed—often severely flawed, as seen with COVID. A particularly interesting idea with regard to population growth is that lack of space can have a constraining effect, independent of food supply, which is reflected in the reputation of cities as low-reproduction areas.

**Assuming a sufficiently short time span and no other constraints, like lack of arable land. Indeed, under sufficiently “kind” assumptions, an exponential population growth would lead to an exponential production growth, making the whole linear-vs.-exponential contrast misleading.

The “Leftist panic-monger version” is Leftist panic mongering, which, as usual, falls flat on its face when we think matters through. Barring an extreme population explosion, much faster than e.g. the current African one, feedback mechanisms will step in (as per the “scientific version”): Families that can barely feed the current set of children are unlikely to have more children; and, if they still do, localized issues will intervene before society as a whole collapses, e.g. in that the mortality in these specific families is increased. (Similar ups and downs are well-known in nature.)

However, there are scenarios where something akin to the “Leftist panic-monger version” can happen, just for different reasons—and some of them might actually be current or future threats. These mostly relate to the risk that previous carrying capacity is reduced in a drastic manner. (Indeed, looking at the past, did the population starve when it grew fast or when crops failed?) Interestingly, most are caused, not prevented, by direct or indirect Leftist influences.

Consider a few scenarios:

  1. A country is at carrying capacity using modern advances and is suddenly forced to abandon some or all of them, causing a rapid drop in productivity and, thus, carrying capacity. We might now well have a severe food deficit, possibly to the point of starvation in portions of the population.* (Consider the current situation in Sri Lanka or the potentially coming situation in Europe.)

    *But even here, of course, it would not be the end, outside a far-Left equality-of-outcome society, as the risk of starvation is not even throughout the population. Some might starve, but others would not, and a second chance comes once the crisis is past. (Unless some more indirect force intervenes, e.g. riots or government interference, that reduces what is left even further.)

  2. Internal costs, e.g. for energy, increase severely and the profitability of farming is reduced to the point that land use is decreased, causing a deficit in production.

    (See excursion on increasing food prices.)

  3. A country lives on imported food, which is paid for by exports.* The exchange rate changes for the worse, production costs skyrocket, or something else reduces the income from exports relative the costs for imports—and sufficient imports are now impossible.

    *As seen, the carrying capacity of society is not necessarily equal to that of arable land.

  4. A country keeps food (or other) production up through foreign technology (that it cannot produce internally), foreign aid, or similar. For one reason or another, foreign inflow is stopped and production crashes.
  5. Age demographics become so unfortunate that the outnumbered younger generations cannot produce enough to keep everyone in food. (Note that this is most likely caused by a too low reproductive rate. Many pension schemes, including the Swedish, were based on the assumption of continued population growth—and fell into severe troubles when population numbers stagnated or fell.)
  6. Leftist politics, dysgenic pressure, and/or an overlarge inflow of immigrants with a lower productivity lead to a situation where too few must carry the burden of providing for too many through productive work, tax payments, and whatnot. (In e.g. today’s Sweden and Germany, the proportion of the population that is a net drain on the budget and/or society is quite large. Imagine what would happen if e.g. a “universal income” was established, unrestricted immigration from Africa was allowed, or some other particularly destructive Leftist suggestion implemented.)
  7. Quality of education drops to the point that the younger generations cannot reach the productivity of the older generations, be it through less competence in the work, per se, or because tools and technology cannot be adequately replaced at a sensible cost.

    (With variations, including that too few of the highly intelligent choose to go to college, because it has become too expensive, because good science is derided as “White Supremacy”, because the educational effect per effort is too low, or similar.)

  8. A pandemic causes politicians to pay large swaths of the workforce not to work, forbid others to work, shift work to less productive but believed to be safer forms, etc.

    No, that is just silly. It would never happen in real life. Better stop here, before I imagine pink elephants swooping down on our wheat fields like locusts.

Excursion on increasing food prices:
Would not a rise in internal costs, as above, be resolved by increasing food prices as supply drops relative demand?

Ideally, yes; however, new or already present government interventions are likely to prevent this, e.g. through a price cap “to ensure that everyone can afford food” or “because social justice”. (Leading to the question whether we are better off buying existing food at a higher price or looking at empty shelves marked with a lower price. Ask someone from the old Soviet Union about that.) Moreover, there are complications like a time delay to propagate price changes through all middle-men, which can have a similar effect. Then there is the drop in other consumption, risk of inflation, whatnot, which can cause other damage than starvation. (Yes, here a food shortage would be averted, but the country would still be worse or much worse off than before.) And what about limits on how much prices can rise before a further increase would have a negative effect on the bottom line, because some consumers shift to cheaper* foods or, in an extreme situation, cannot afford food?

*Which often implies nutritionally poor foods. In a current German grocery store, e.g., it is very possible to buy potato chips, chocolate, candy, cookies, whatnot to fill the daily energy need for a fraction of what it would cost to do so with “proper” food. For instance, I am currently looking at a 600g package of “Gewürzspekulatius” (a gingerbread relative), which cost around EUR 1.20 and has an energy content of 2004 kJ per 100 g. Gewürzspekulatius would, then, cover the typical energy demands of an adult for around 1 Euro per day—food bill for a year: 365 Euro. Ensuing medical bills? Could be quite large… (As a note on underestimating inflation: last year, if (!) I remember correctly, the price was around half of 1.20, which would give us an increase of 100 percent on this product.)

Excursion on flawed support:
Some situations that really should not occur might still occur through flawed support, especially within a single society. Say that a family (as in an above example) barely makes ends meet and would normally forego having more children—but that the government promises so extensive child support that having one or two children more will not negatively affect the family budget. The incentives to breed responsibly are gone, population growth might be too large, and some third parties are stuck with bigger tax bills, which will negatively affect the growth of the economy.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 3, 2022 at 9:51 pm

Follow-up: Osthyvlar and cheese in Sweden and Germany

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I have earlier written about my disappointing experiences with osthyvlar in Germany.

Since then:

  1. My osthyvel was so over-challenged by a stubborn piece of cheese that it slipped, hit my left thumb, and sliced roughly half a cm2 of skin and flesh almost off. (The piece remained connected by a thin strip of skin on one side.) I used osthyvlar in Sweden from a fairly early childhood until I left for German at age 22, and nothing even remotely similar ever happened.

    Obviously, I resolved to never use this particular osthyvel again. Equally obviously, someone with no prior experiences, e.g. the typical German, would have been quite likely to curse osthyvlar as pointless and dangerous, making the introduction of this wonderful tool even harder than it already is (cf. the orginal text).

  2. The next few weeks, I took the opportunity to look for another osthyvel in any likely store that I came across. Most had none at all. The few that I found were usually severely over-priced. This includes other examples of the substandard model that I had rejected at 9.9x Euro and other models going up well above twenty Euro. This for an item that is basically quite cheap and can be had for just two or three Euro in Sweden,* and in a situation where it would make sense to buy several models for experimentation. At this point, I was torn between asking my father to send me a good model and just canceling the experiment entirely (note the other complications mentioned in the original text).

    *As with many such products, there is no real upper limit on price, be it in Sweden or Germany, and the functionality and quality does not correlate well with the price. The problem seems to be that the German stores only go for over-priced “design” or “brand” models (if any at all), while the Swedish market covers the entire spectrum.

  3. At this point, looking for something else, I stumbled upon a 3.9x Euro item in a store that I already had visited without success.* I bought one—and found it to be clearly superior to my original 9.9x Euro specimen, again proving that prices tell little about quality. Most of the issues in my original text remain, but slicing Emmentaler and (even young) Gouda is now possible without effort and risk.

    *Specifically, Kodi. I do not know whether this item will continue to be sold or whether it was a short-term experiment.

Excursion on a previous injury:
While I have never had any prior incident with an osthyvel, I did once get a similar cut through a knife (and on the same thumb): My first year in Germany, with little money and equipment, I used a too blunt (non-bread) knife to cut a too stale piece of bread. I held the bread in my hand to try to get more (for want of a better word) traction than on a cutting board. The knife slipped with considerable force and a similar result. With the knife, I was behaving stupidly and the result was, with hindsight, not that unexpected; with the osthyvel, I did nothing wrong and the event would not have taken place, had the osthyvel been of an acceptable quality.

On the upside, this time I was sufficiently wise to immediately press the almost-sliced-off piece back onto the wound and applying a band-aid. It reconnected very soon and the resulting scar looks to be a lot smaller than the last time around, even after adjusting for the smaller wound.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 1, 2019 at 3:50 pm

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Osthyvlar and cheese in Sweden and Germany

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During my visits to Sweden, I re-encountered one of my favorite inventions—the osthyvel.* This kitchen implement amounts to a (carpenter’s) plane for cheese, but in a more compact form, looking** a little like a cake and pie server with a bladed slit, which cuts and collects a slice of cheese.

*Going by Wikipedia, this might translate as “cheese slicer”, but it also claims that the osthyvel would be “very common” in Germany, where it is, in fact, a niche tool (as discussed in this text). I will stick to “osthyvel” (singular) and “osthyvlar” (plural) here. (Note, throughout, that I am weak in kitchen terminology and do not necessarily pick the optimal words.)

**At least in the standard model. I have seen some other versions over the year.

While ubiquitous in my native Sweden, it is quite rare in my adopted Germany, which has implications on e.g. how cheese is packaged and sold—big blocks of cheese for home slicing in Sweden and pre-sliced cheese in Germany. This, in turn, severely reduces the value of the osthyvel in Germany. Indeed, I spent the first 21 years here without bothering.

After my re-encounter, I decided to purchase one anyway and see where it took me—especially, because German cheese is sold in too thick slices that tend to over-power the taste of a sandwich*, use the cheese up unnecessarily fast, and are likely sub-optimal from a health perspective. To boot, these “value subtracted” slices come at a hefty price increase,** both through the smaller quantities per package*** and for the “service” of slicing—just like the coffee in a coffee pod is more expensive than regular coffee.

*For convenience, I will take “sandwich” to include toast, bread-rolls, and other breads where a slice of cheese might find use.

**Something of increased importance as I try to live cheaply as a struggling author.

***If in doubt, because the larger surface areas, post-slicing, reduce durability. 200 grams, less than half-a-pound, is a typical size, but smaller and larger quantities are available.

My new osthyvel has improved my cheese situation, but nowhere near as much as it could have: In order for it to be useful, I have to buy unsliced cheese. However:

  1. The selection of unsliced cheese in Germany is much smaller than in Sweden. Apart from some more expensive “special” cheeses, most super-markets appear to have only Gouda and Emmentaler (“Swiss cheese”)—and because of the holes and the small blocks, cf. below, Emmentaler is not much of an option. In other words, I am largely restricted to Gouda. (As it happens, Gouda is one of my favorite cheeses, but still…)

    Indeed, I strongly suspect that the unsliced market in Germany is simply not intended for sandwiches, instead aiming at e.g. cooking, grating, cubing, use on crackers, …

    In contrast, Sweden has an enormous variety of cheeses available. This does not just increase the customer’s ability to choose and prioritize, but has a two-fold positive effect on the price: Firstly, because unsliced cheese is not a rarity, there is a downwards price pressure through competition—there is no “niche effect” on the price. Secondly, there is a greater chance of finding something “on offer”. (Non-offer differences in price exist too, but are implicitly contained in the “prioritize” above.)

  2. The package sizes and, often, shapes are unfortunate for slicing, which requires more stability than e.g. cutting. For instance, the Goudas that I usually buy come in at about one pound, are shaped like very high pie slices, and still have the “crust” attached. The result of the former two is that it takes more skill to slice the cheese and that even an experienced slicer can see a portion of the cheese break off rather than be sliced (especially, on the narrow end of the “pie slice”). Indeed, I stick to specifically “medium old” Gouda for this reason—the “young” Gouda is softer and trickier.* The third, at least in combination with the “pie slice”, implies a bit of tricky cutting with a knife and/or a further waste of cheese.** (Emmentalers are more rectangular and without crust, but still have unfortunate proportions—and are, again, weakened further through holes.)

    *The “medium old” also tastes better, but both variety and the lower price might make me prefer “young ” on occasion. “Old” Gouda, the best tasting version, I have yet to see in unsliced form (in Germany).

    **I tried using my osthyvel to remove it, naturally, but this does not work as well as I had hoped. The curvature of the cheese is a particular problem.

    In contrast, Swedish cheeses often come in multi-pound varieties and, when not, have proportions and shapes that make them much more stable—e.g. in that the above “pie slice” of Gouda might have been replaced by a half or entire “pie” of Gouda, or even a larger block pre-cut into a more rectangular and crustless shape. The greater quantities also imply a better price relative weight.

    Disclaimer: It is possible that my (German bought) osthyvel is not the very best and that some of the above would go smoother with a replacement. Unfortunately, the very limited choices and often high prices in Germany make experimentation and comparison harder than in Sweden. Then again, I have no obvious reason to suspect a quality problem. (Going by price and optics, I might even have assumed clearly above average quality, but I know from experience that neither need say very much about a products “fitness for purpose”.)

The above refers to the situation in the self-service areas of more general stores: I have neither checked the “serviced” areas*, nor the specialist stores. Even if they were to have better options, I would likely still avoid them due to the increased effort, e.g. for having to waste time queuing twice. Moreover, one of the main advantages with a “bulk buy” would be a better price; however, in my impression, the former sell by weight without a quantity discount and with an implicit service surcharge, while the latter have a higher markup for reasons like targeting “refined” tastes and bigger pocketbooks, and smaller volumes of more choices.

*Where e.g. meet and cheese can be ordered by quantity, with or without additional cutting, from staff. This might or might not be “fresh-food counter”.

Measured by importance, relevance, whatnot, this is not what I would have chosen for a first text. However, I am a little uncertain on how to begin and coordinate the (often over-lapping) others. This text gives me a start, if nothing else.

Excursion on coincidence vs. conspiracy:
The above is a good example of why it is important to not jump to conclusions about e.g. conspiracies, sex discrimination, or similar. (Cf. e.g. an old text on misunderstood discrimination in hair-salons.) It is tempting to look at the above and conclude that German stores deliberately make it hard to use an osthyvel—so that they can keep selling their over-priced and too-thick pre-sliced slices. Possibly, they do,* but another explanation is more likely, namely that Germany took a different turn than Sweden because the osthyvel was invented and spread too late.** A more likely case for cheese, is the thickness of the slices, but that too might have another explanation, e.g. that it is harder to make thinner slices by machine, that too thin slices are too perishable, or that consumer demand and the need for a one-slice-fits-all solution limit choice.

*There are cases, where I do consider such manipulations outright likely, but those are in the minority. An example is the removal of two-ply toilet papers from stores, which artificially limits access to a (superior, in my opinion) product that was present for a very long time. (While, in contrast, the mere introduction of higher ply-counts is not an example, even if it serves the same purpose.)

**The inventor was Norwegian, and the step to Sweden was considerably shorter. To boot, the invention appears to have taken place as late as 1925.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 3, 2019 at 12:56 am

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Some problems with information on nutrition

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Over recent years, I have been looking into a healthier life style, seeing that I am on the wrong side of forty and have a family history with several cases of heart attacks, diabetes, and whatnot.

Eating healthy is tricky for a number of reasons, including that what is considered healthy and unhealthy changes over time* and that most even slightly processed** foods have been unnecessarily altered beyond even what follows from the processing, e.g. through addition of salt or other additives*** better left to the discretion of the consumer—restaurant food is usually even worse.

*For example, eggs were once considered a super-food, had an extremely bad reputation through most of my life, and are now increasingly being reconsidered as probably not that bad after all.

**Unprocessed foods are widely considered better than processed in a blanket manner, but factoring in time and effort to do this-and-that… I suspect that most of the benefits from unprocessed food can be achieved merely through preferring whole grain. Even refined sugar, often named as a great evil, is a lesser evil than (too much) sugar in general. Processing is simply a lesser problem than too much this and too little of that—by a considerable distance.

***Including such extremes as a jar of pre-sliced carrots having added salt or canned fruits (or even frozen berries) having been artificially sugared.

The complication that bothers me the most, however, is poor transfer of information to consumers by alleged specialists, being destructive, incompetent, and/or intellectually dishonest—and it falls most heavily on the less bright who would benefit the most from an unobstructed information flow. Four examples that I find particularly annoying:

  1. The obsession with “good” and “bad” ingredients, fats, cholesterol, …

    By and large there is no such thing as good and bad ingredients*, etc. As I gather from actually reading up and thinking on a deeper level than the simplistic “lying to students” practiced in this area, it is rather quantities and/or proportions that are good or bad. That X is “good” and Y is “bad” usually only amounts to “most current diets have less of X and more of Y than would be optimal”. Drink too much water and you die; drink too little water and you die…

    *Conceivably combinations of ingredients could still turn out to be bad in a more blanket manner; however, even a McDonald’s meal could well have been manna from heaven at many points in human history.

    This type of miscommunication makes it unnecessarily hard to make informed choices and brings a risk that people will over do the “healthy” thing. Yes, too much sodium is unhealthy and most people have an intake currently considered excessive; no, attempting to eat no sodium at all is not a good idea. Too little sodium is also unhealthy. (In extreme cases probably even lethal, but I have not done the leg work.)

  2. The (especially U.S.) idiocy of making recommendations/giving information in “servings”: Eat at least x servings of fruit a day. One serving of meat contains y grams of protein. Etc.

    These “servings” only make it harder to get the information. The size of a serving is basically never* defined, it varies from food stuff to food stuff (making comparisons harder), and does not necessarily have anything to do with what actually lands on the plate (i.e. a literal serving). Notably, the people who benefit the most from eating healthier are the once most likely to have servings considerably above the average.

    *In the few cases, where I have seen an actual definition, it has either been using some obscure or ambiguous term (notably, “cup”) which requires a separate investigation or through some construct that makes the use of “serving” entirely unnecessary, e.g. “a 100 gram serving”—just say “a 100 gram”! As for cup: A cup is a measure of volume. This might work well for fluids, but when it is used for e.g. fruits and berries, it becomes extremely vague, because factors like compression, shape of the cup, shape of the fruit, …, can have a major impact on the actual contents.

    It would be much, much better to make statements in terms of grams/ounces of fruit, meat, whatnot—and even then a criticism for wishy-washy misinformation should be raised, because it implies comparing apples and oranges in both a literal and a metaphorical sense.

    As an aside, at least in Germany, the serving (“portion”) is often abused by the food industry to obfuscate the unhealthiness of certain foods. Potato chips regularly have their fat and whatnot contents listed in 20 gram “servings”—how often does someone actually eat 20 grams (~ 2/3 of an ounce) of potato chips? If 20 gram is the intended serving, why do the bags usually contain ten times as much?

  3. The incessant use of the out-dated and highly problematic calorie/Calorie.

    Firstly, the standard unit for energy is Joule, not calorie.

    Secondly, the differentiation into the “real” calorie and the alleged* “dietary” Calorie causes unnecessary confusion, and the distinction is often not made properly.

    *I am unaware of the exact usage history, but I very, very strongly suspect that some group of nit-wits kept saying “calorie” out of sheer ignorance, while actually meaning “kilo-calorie”—and then invented the “Calorie” for the single purpose of not having to admit their error and ignorance.

    Thirdly, Calorie is often used in contexts where a dimension, not a unit, is appropriate. (As in “sugar is high in Calories” instead of “sugar is high in energy”; like saying “an elephants weighs many kilos” instead of “an elephant is heavy”.) Apparently, there are even some people who interpret Calorie as some form of stuff or particle, analogous to carbohydrate. This leads to a reduced ability to judge the effects of carbohydrates and fats, as well as such brain-dead ideas like (literally) filtering the Calories out from foods.

  4. Speaking in terms of weight/weight-loss/weight-gain instead of fat/fat-loss/fat-gain*. What most people actually want to do is get rid of fat—not weight. Weight can be lost through reductions in muscle mass or bone density, dehydration, or, in a pinch, amputation—even when the amount of fat is not actually reduced. To boot someone who tries to reduce fat through exercise might actually grow heavier (!), because the reduction in fat can be outweighed by an increase in muscle mass. This is healthy and beneficial, but can still cause a misinformed teenage girl to see herself as a failure.

    Say what you mean and mean what you say!

    *With an honorable mention for over-focusing on weight issues: Good nutrition has many other components…

Written by michaeleriksson

August 6, 2017 at 4:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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