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    Archive for the ‘economics’ Category

    When “Documentary” Means “Glorification”: CNBC on Coca-Cola

    Coca-Cola_Logo_2003Earlier this week, I caught a rerun of a CNBC documentary (which premiered last November) titled “Coca-Cola: The Real Story Behind The Real Thing”.

    It comes as no surprise that a channel devoted to business and marketing essentially made an aspirational “how-to” piece targeted to MBA students, heaping endless praise on the soft drink giant (buzzwords like “global presence” and “brand loyalty” abounded) for its world dominance.

    Alas, the documentary still contained a few gems, detailed below:

    1. Chief Financial Officer Gary Fayard, responding to his company’s obesity and health-related backlash:

    There’s nothing bad in this bottle [of Coca Cola].  It’s pretty much all-natural.  It’s the original energy drink.”

    While there are certainly no lethal ingredients in Coca-Cola, there are questionable inclusions.  Firstly, there are copious amounts of sweetener (whether cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup, a beverage containing 40 grams of sugar is far from healthful).  Then, there’s phosphoric acid (which leaches calcium from bones).

    The “all-natural” moniker is meaningless.  Poisonous mushrooms are natural; that doesn’t mean they are edible and/or healthful.  Poison ivy is also “all-natural,” but certainly not a plant you want to cuddle with.

    Coca-Cola (which has been around since the late 19th century) is the original energy drink?  News to me.  I award coffee with that moniker, which has been consumed worldwide for thousands of years.

    2. Coca-Cola executives prefer to refer to their sodas as “sparkling beverages”.  Sad thing is, you know some advertising executive was able to pay off his mortgage in one fell swoop simply because they came up with that euphemism.

    3. Coca-Cola executives apparently believe that if “people want to have a little moment of joy,” all they have to do is reach for a bottle of Coca-Cola.

    4. Coca-Cola has an official historian — an employed staff member who, since 1977, has been safekeeping $60 million worth of print ads, bottles, and other memorabilia. Alas, Coca Cola’s secret formula is locked in the vault of an Atlanta bank.

    5. Coca-Cola claims to have created “the modern image of Santa Claus”.  As the ever-trusty folks at Snopes.com inform us, that is not true.  Unfortunately, the claim was presented as undisputed fact in the documentary.

    6. A Coca-Cola executive gleefully recalls that Coca-Cola was the only soda available to soldiers in World War II.  Consequently, “11 million GIs came back with a keen loyalty to Coke.”  Sure, they also came back with severe cases of PTSD, but, hey, Coca-Cola picked up 11 million loyal customers!

    This particularly disturbed me.  Here is a Coca-Cola executive attempting to tug at heartstrings by associating his product with patriotism and support of the troops, all while ultimately caring about “consumer loyalty” and heightened collective awareness of his brand.

    7. A good third of the documentary focused on Coca-Cola’s presence in South Africa.  We witness one shopkeeper (whose shop is his front porch in the slums) travel many miles to pick up a supply of Coca-Cola off of a distribution truck, which he then places in a wheelbarrow before heading back through raw sewage and muddy roads to his store.

    The President of Coca Cola’s South Africa Business Unit manages to keep a straight face while stating that given the problems that these economically disadvantaged people face, they “need an extra dose of optimism” in the form of Coca Cola.  Insert sound of needle scratching record HERE.

    He also claims that “everybody who touches the product” makes money.  We are then treated to images of local residents buying Coca Cola, and testimony from shopkeepers that one of the first things people in this small community do when they earn money is buy the ubiquitous fizzy brown soda.

    An extremely rosy picture, but one that I am sure has a kernel of truth in it.  However, the documentary completely glosses over the fact that Coca Cola’s ubiquitousness around the world often comes at a price for local farmers and the economy in third world countries.

    Towards the end of the documentary, we hear from more Jurassic executives who giddily talk about the 900 million “potential customers” around the world who they have yet to introduce to their product, and their desire to “make sure [Coca Cola] is within reach.”

    As the credits roll, it becomes perfectly clear that CNBC’s promise to “pull back the curtain on the planet’s most recognizable brand” fell flat.

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    Is Agriculture The Next Wall Street?

    normal_iil-ian-aj-0163The economic crash of 2008 forever changed the financial landscape.  Consumer confidence sank, investors balked, construction projects around the world halted, and recovery is expected to continue well into the next decade.

    I can’t help but think of Wall Street’s most recent implosion as a possible preview of what may happen with agriculture in the United States.

    After all, the economic crash was the end result of an unsustainable financial system.

    I use — as well as italicize and underline — the word “unsustainable” because it also happens to describe our food system.

    We are, currently, at the peak.  It all appears to be going well, as far as most people are concerned.  Fast food chains offer plentiful food for low prices, while the amount of available calories for each American is at an all-time high.

    You can’t help but wonder, though, how sustainable is the current agricultural system?  It’s becoming increasingly clear that the answer is “not very”.

    Increased pesticide and herbicide use over the past three decades has poisoned bodies of water and severely altered biosystems.  Cattle-feed operations produce millions of tons of manure each year, placing a huge burden on the environment.  Fish farms pollute nearby waters.

    There is no possible way in which the current food system — which essentially sticks up the middle finger at Mother Nature — can continue as is for another decade without serious consequences.

    Unlike the Wall Street scenario, there are no bailouts for the environment.  You can’t simply bring life back to a poisoned river or lake overnight, no matter how many millions of dollars you throw at it.

    This is not a doomsday prophecy.  I believe, more than ever, that we are at the early beginnings of what could be a powerful collective shift in how we view food.

    These issues can be often be daunting — at least they are for me — because it can be difficult to pinpoint what the best starting point is.  For now, I believe that informing others of how our current food system works is crucial.  There is no need for self-created pedestals, or belittling.  After all, each and every one of us, at some point, had absolutely no awareness about any of this.

    Similarly, “the sky is falling!” scare tactics often paralyze, rather than stir people into action.

    While activism and advocacy are great services to society, not everybody has the time, personality, or unbridled energy for headline-making moves.  You don’t have to be a policy maker to take action, though.  If you are part of a book club, suggest that one of your upcoming tomes be “Food Politics” by Marion Nestle, “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser, or “Appetite for Profit” by Michele Simon.

    Are you a school teacher?  See if you can fit “Supersize Me”, “King Corn”, or “Food, Inc.” into your curriculum.

    Discuss.  Analyze.  Engage in conversation.  And, always, continue learning.

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    Numbers Game: Uh-Oh-Nomics

    070608_wholeFoods_hmed4p.hmediumTaking into account inflation, the average price of soda in the United States was _____ percent cheaper in 2009 than in 1978.  Vegetables, meanwhile, were _____ percent more expensive.  Fruits?   ______ more expensive.

    Source: New York Times via Bureau of Labor Statistics

    a) 26/25/19
    b) 33/40/46
    c) 47/31/29
    d) 15/50/30

    Leave your guess in the “comments” section and come back on Friday for the answer.

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    In The News: Lean Times, Leaner Burger

    Starting Monday, the double cheeseburger will disappear from McDonald’s dollar menu.

    It’s not that customers don’t love it — it’s actually the chain’s best-selling $1 item!

    In its place? The same burger with just one slice of cheese, a different name, and a slightly heftier price tag.

    The McDouble — the end result of McDonald’s strategy to increase profits after the cost of commodities like wheat skyrocketed over the past year — is set to debut in 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants on December 1.

    Retailing for $1.19, this new version offers 50 fewer calories (390) and 25 percent less saturated fat (8.5 grams, or roughly 42% of the recommended daily limit) than its predecessor.

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    In The News: Wall Street, Farm Subsidies, and Our Health

    The Los Angeles Times published a nifty article tying in the current economic situation, the horrendous farm subsidies (“for the last 60 years or so, the government has subsidized the production of commodity crops — corn, wheat, rice and soybeans — that are ingredients in many high-calorie foods… to receive the subsidies, farmers must refrain from growing any fruits and vegetables,”) and nutrition.

    The article also highlights a study published last year in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, which tracked the prices of 372 foods and beverages sold in the Seattle area for a two year period (2004 – 2006.)

    The conclusion? “The average price increase was 7.9%… [but] foods most dense in calories had dropped by an average of 1.8%, [while] prices of the lowest-calorie foods had gone up by an average of 19.5%.”

    As discouraging as that may seem, here is my by-no-means-exhaustive list of affordable and nutritious foods you can rely on (whenever applicable, buy generic):

    Bananas
    Raisins
    Apples

    Plain yogurt (non-fat or low-fat)
    Plain quick-cooking oats
    Whole wheat bread
    Natural peanut butter
    Brown rice (cook in large batches and refrigerate)
    Ground flaxseed (a two pounds bag costs between $4 and $5 and will last you months)
    Canned beans (I suppose dry beans are the true money saver, but canned beans are inexpensive and a wonderful source of lean protein)
    Potatoes (the key is to keep the skin on and cook them with little added fat)
    Sweet potatoes
    Garlic (an inexpensive way to add flavor)
    Frozen spinach
    Frozen broccoli
    Eggs
    Canned tuna (ideally chunk light and packed in water, to preserve the Omega 3’s and slightly cut down on mercury levels)

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    Price Check

    Recent newspaper articles have referred to Whole Foods beginning to earn a bit of a bad reputation as an elitist supermarket, thereby earning the monicker “Whole Paycheck.”

    Hogwash! I wholeheartedly challenge that simplistic label — and I come prepared with proof.

    Yesterday afternoon I stopped by a local (New York City) Whole Foods to purchase a few dinner ingredients.

    Upon scanning my receipt, I was actually surprised at the good deals I got — on items that weren’t even on sale!

    Let’s start with a 16 oz (1 lb.) bag of Whole Foods’ 365 brand whole wheat fusilli.

    Name brands sell their 16 oz. boxes for anywhere from $2.49 to $3.99, even at conventional supermarkets.

    This particular product? $1.49! Certainly one of the most affordable prices for whole wheat fusilli I have come across in MONTHS.

    Lara bars, meanwhile, are a delicious staple of mine that can be rather costly if you buy them at the wrong store.

    I have been charged as much as $2.49 for one of these bars in the past (upon learning of that price, my thoughts screamed out “Hell to the no!” and I promptly returned the bar to its display case) .

    Whole Foods sells each one for $1.29.

    That’s actually forty cents cheaper than what Lara herself charges on her website (where a 16-bar box retails for $27.00, thereby making each bar worth $1.67)!

    One of my other favorite snack bars is Gnu Food’s Flavor & Fiber bars, which the manufacturer — and most other stores — sells for $1.99.

    Well, today at Whole Foods I bought several 5-count at $6.99 per box.

    Some simple division reveals that, thereby, each individual bar cost me $1.40.

    I also bought fresh broccoli that was available for $1.99/pound.

    Conventional supermarkets in New York City are selling that same amount of the flowery vegetable for $2.99.

    If anything, my trip to Whole Foods proved to be a money saver.

    Of course, there are some items at Whole Foods — mainly cuts of meat — that are certainly pricier than at other grocery stores, but this notion that they do not provide any affordable choices is ludicrous.

    For more “nutriconomic” information, I highly recommend you take a look at this link, which shows how prices have changed for a variety of common foods — and fuel! — between July 2007 and July 2008 (NOTE: The left-hand column displays U.S. city averages, while the right-hand column particularly focuses on the Midwest region of the country.)

    Some of the standouts:

    White flour increased 54.1%
    Long-grain white rice increased 45.3%
    Eggs have shot up 33.9%
    Sweet peppers rose 34.6%

    If these increases don’t make sense to you, scroll down to the very bottom and look at what has happened to fuel costs in the past 12 months.

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    In The News: Downsized Economy No Problem for Supersize Master

    This article from Bloomberg.com states that “reported August sales [for McDonald’s] rose more than some analysts estimated as consumers battered by higher gasoline and grocery bills bought $1 sodas in the U.S. and snack-sized chicken wraps in France.”

    The issue isn’t so much that people are buying $1 sodas, but that it is the large sizes that are selling for the reduced cost of a single dollar.

    A large Mickey D’s cup offers 2 pints of soda, 21.5 teaspoons of sugar, and 310 calories (along with zero nutrition).

    It’s rather ironic that one of the main menu items driving up sales at McDonald’s during an economic recession is one that offers no sustenance.

    It’s also very telling that the United States consumers opt for large sodas while French customers spend their money on snack-sized items.

    Had McDonald’s execs in the United States consulted me about menu changes during tough economic times, I would have suggested expanding the “dollar menu” by introducing smaller portions of more menu items.

    Does advocating for smaller portions make me anti-American?

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    In The News: Corn-utopia

    The Wall Street Journal reports that the ever increasing prices of corn farming have led farmers to project this year’s planting estimates at 86 million acres — eight percent less than last year’s figure.

    Corn prices have skyrocketed in recent years, helped by the burgeoning ethanol industry, which turns the crop into fuel, and rising world-wide demand for food. The higher prices have hurt poultry, beef and pork companies, who use corn to feed their animals.

    Here’s a thought — how about feeding these animals the foods they are meant to eat?

    In the case of cows, not only is a corn diet detrimental to their digestive systems, it also results in meat higher in saturated fat and omega-6 fatty acids than that of cows subsisting exclusively on a grass diet.

    The repercussions also affect our wallets.

    Corn already is trading near its record-high price of $5.70 a bushel, more than double the price of two years ago.

    Meat and dairy prices will continue to rise.

    Additionally, since a large portion of this country’s food supply is based around corn oil and corn-based syrups, expect bread and convenience snacks to also take a hit.

    For more information on this very complex topic, I direct you to a highly informative 2002 interview with corn guru Michael Pollan.

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    Frightful Fiesta

    Taco Bell debuted a new advertisement for their Fiesta platters during the 2008 Superbowl.

    They are clearly going for the office lunch crowd.

    The commercial features two cube buddies rushing to a meeting, fiesta platters in hand, only to be stopped by three mariachis who set up a small table for them in the middle of the cube farm, urging them to slow down and enjoy their meal.

    The two employees proceed to happily chow down on chicken soft tacos, seasoned rice, refried beans, chips, and salsa.

    The nutrition facts, however, aren’t so funky dory.

    Each platter adds up to:

    1,060 calories
    50 grams of fat
    12 grams (60 percent of a day’s worth) of saturated fat

    1 gram of trans fat (remember, the recommendation is set at ZERO)

    An astounding 3,420 milligrams (almost a day and a half’s worth!) of sodium.

    The thought of someone unknowingly consuming that much sodium in one sitting truly angers me.

    The one question that comes to my mind is, “why?”

    Why doesn’t Taco Bell offer this product with 300 less calories, half the saturated fat, and half the sodium?

    Well, I suppose I DO know why. Simple economics. Cost. It’s cheaper to provide inexpensive processed food than to buy, store, maintain, and sell fresher items.

    Sigh….

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    In The News: A Soda Tax?

    Over in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom is toying with the idea of imposing an anti-obesity tax on stores selling foods and beverages containing high-fructose corn syrup.

    Although I understand what he is attempting to achieve, I believe Mayor Newson is going about this the wrong way.

    Sweetened drinks undoubtedly add extra calories to anyone’s day, but I have a problem with foods being automatically branded as “bad” or “evil,” regardless of context.

    I don’t think the problem to tackle is soda itself as it is the ridiculous amounts of it people are used to drinking.

    Between unlimited refills, 20 ounce to-go bottles, and 64 ounce containers at 7-11, it is perfectly feasible to accompany any given meal with as much as 1,000 liquid calories!

    And while high fructose corn syrup is a dirt cheap man-made sweetener that is metabolized differently than real sugar (for one, it does not trigger our brain’s satiety center when consumed), eliminating it will not decrease an obesity problem.

    I have seen the graphs showing a correlation between high fructose corn syrup intake and rising obesity rates in the United States, but it is important to point out that increased high fructose corn syrup intake was also accompanied by exploding portion sizes and easier availability of sugar and fat-laden foods.

    It makes much more sense to attribute weight gain to extra calories in the form of more food (larger portions).

    Remember, high fructose corn syrup delivers just as many calories as any other sugar (fructose, honey, or table sugar) per teaspoon.

    I would hate for people to think that products made with real sugar automatically get a free pass.

    A Starbucks Venti vanilla latte accompanied by a banana chocolate-chip muffin adds up to over 1,000 calories and as much added sugar as a can of Coke.

    High fructose syrup might be missing from the equation, but that does not make this “meal” healthier or waist-friendly.

    A better initiative would be to help convenience stores (particularly those in low-income neighborhoods) offer healthier items (as attempted by New York City’s Healthy Bodega initiative).

    What do you think?

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