"Is Fast Food Addictive? Evidence from an experiment utilizing continuous glucose monitoring"
The industrialization of the U.S. food supply over the past century has yielded a many-fold increase in the efficiency of our food production and distribution systems, while also generating important negative consequences for public health. In earlier work, Dr. Smith has argued that throughout this history, food processing innovations have repeatedly generated what economists refer to as “lemons equilibrium” outcomes, in which defective products come to dominate the marketplace because consumers are unaware of their hidden defects. The usual public policy prescription—mandatory food labels—has been effective in many cases, but typically only after decades of widespread diet-induced disease and always in the face of political opposition from entrenched commercial interests.
This presentation will focus on a particular characteristic of today’s processed foods—their impact on the dynamics of blood sugar response—that is largely unobservable to the consumer, but almost certainly has large negative effects on public health. Intriguingly, glycemic effects may also—again, in ways the typical consumer does not understand—directly impact appetite and long-term consumption patterns.
Professor Smith will discuss preliminary results of an experimental study inspired by this larger economic context. In the study, he and his co-authors hypothesized that if glycemic response is indeed an important determinant of habit formation—and hence product demand—then the largest producers of proprietary commercial foods may have formulated their products accordingly. He and his co-authors asked 12 non-diabetic adult subjects to wear a continuous glucose monitor for 7 days while consuming at least one globally branded fast food meal, yielding a pooled time series data set withmore than 24,000 observations. They find strong evidence that addiction-like dynamic properties of the glycemic response (craving, dose, rate of absorption, and withdrawal) are greater for these fast food meals (as compared to fresh-prepared or off-brand processed foods). These differences are largely maintained when controlling for size of meal and nutrient content, suggesting that standard food labels may be insufficient to resolve what appears to be an important market failure.Implications for the political economy of food labeling will be discussed.
Trent Smith is Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Professor Smith’s research interests are broadly interdisciplinary, applying economic methods in biological perspective to better understand behavioral phenomena that would seem to violate the economist’s conventional presumptions of rationality and full information. His published research has focused in particular on dietary choice, obesity, addiction, economic insecurity, and mass marketing, appearing in such journals as The Lancet, Games & Economic Behavior, Addiction, Obesity, Behavioral & Brain Sciences, Food Policy, and American Journal of Agricultural Economics.