Economic Influences

Economics has also been called the 'science of choice,' and there has been much important work by economists on the analysis of economic influences on food choice. Within economic approaches, food choice is conceptualized as an act of consumption broadly equivalent to the consumption of other goods, whether they be clothes, tractors, or dishwashers. Food choice is thus largely conflated with purchase by economists and, as with other commodities, a range of economic factors have been identified that act to both constrain and encourage our purchase of particular foods, mostly centering on the interplay between price, demand, and income.

The simplest economic model of food choice is the demand curve, which describes an individual's choice of foods as a function of his or her income and the price of the food. Thus, as the price of a particular food commodity decreases, we tend to buy more of it. As income increases, we also tend to buy more of the food as well as spend more money on food overall (although it constitutes a smaller proportion of overall expenditure, a phenomenon known as Engel's law). As consumers, however, we do not just buy for cheapness or price, and various more sophisticated economic explanations have developed, such as utility theory and indifference theory. These incorporate the notion of demand or satisfaction in addition to price or income. Utility theory states that when making choices to purchase a particular good or product from a bundle of goods, as consumers we seek to achieve maximum utility. The term 'utility' refers to the satisfaction of needs, wants, tastes, and aspirations, and choice is conceptualized in terms of maximizing these. Thus, the purchase of a food with high prestige value, such as caviar, makes 'sense' in terms of utility theory if not in terms of nutrition. Indifference theory takes the concept of satisfaction further to explain how we make choices between different combinations of goods or foods for maximum satisfaction; as we eat less of one food, such as vegetables, and more of another, such as fruit, the less willing we become to give up some vegetables to get even more fruit. Economic explanations thus move from accounts of choice on the basis of cheapness to combinations of cost-consciousness with maximizing satisfaction or utility within the budgetary constraints of income.

A number of elegant economic laws have been developed to explain and predict food consumption and patterns of expenditure, such as the wonderfully named law of starchy staples. This predicts that as income increases, traditional staple foods are replaced with more refined staples (e.g., the replacement of sorghum or millet with white rice or wheat), and this is a pattern of change that is being seen today in countries in transition. Such 'laws' and economic analyses demonstrate how factors such as price and income influence food choice and set constraints to it.

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