Did McDonalds cause the decline of violence in America?

Violent crime has been on the decline in the US since 1990, and largely, the reasons for the decline have been inexplicable. Steven Leavitt (of Freakonomics fame) and John J. Donohue III argue that around 50% of the reduction in crime is the result of earlier introduction of legalised abortion (PDF). I’ve got a theory – and it is just a theory at this stage – that McDonalds in the US was also a causal factor in the decline of violence.

Over the last decade Cdr Joseph Hibbeln has been researching the link between violence and the consumption of omega 3 fatty acids. From the Guardian:

Over the last century most western countries have undergone a dramatic shift in the composition of their diets in which the omega-3 fatty acids that are essential to the brain have been flooded out by competing omega-6 fatty acids, mainly from industrial oils such as soya, corn, and sunflower. In the US, for example, soya oil accounted for only 0.02% of all calories available in 1909, but by 2000 it accounted for 20%. Americans have gone from eating a fraction of an ounce of soya oil a year to downing 25lbs (11.3kg) per person per year in that period. In the UK, omega-6 fats from oils such as soya, corn, and sunflower accounted for 1% of energy supply in the early 1960s, but by 2000 they were nearly 5%. These omega-6 fatty acids come mainly from industrial frying for takeaways, ready meals and snack foods such as crisps, chips, biscuits, ice-creams and from margarine. Alcohol, meanwhile, depletes omega-3s from the brain.

To test the hypothesis, Hibbeln and his colleagues have mapped the growth in consumption of omega-6 fatty acids from seed oils in 38 countries since the 1960s against the rise in murder rates over the same period. In all cases there is an unnerving match. As omega-6 goes up, so do homicides in a linear progression. Industrial societies where omega-3 consumption has remained high and omega-6 low because people eat fish, such as Japan, have low rates of murder and depression.

[note: link added by me]. Apart from flaxseed oil, canola oil has the lowest ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 of the vegetable oils at about 2:1. Beef tallow has a omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of 6:1. In 1990, when violent crime hit its peak in America, McDonalds stopped using beef tallow in its fryers and switched to (mostly) canola oil – and as far as I know – almost all American fast food chains followed suit. This certainly increased the total intake of omega 3s and the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 amongst all Americans who eat a french fry-heavy Standard American Diet.

Exactly the same trend followed in the UK. McDonalds replaced beef tallow in the mid-90s, and and since then, the UK has seen the number of victims of violent crimes halve.

They’re interesting correlations but I can’t find (or at least, don’t have the time to find) better data to come up with anything approaching causality.

Any economists want to pick up the baton from here? Anywhere that I can get good datasets on per capita canola oil consumption?

Have we hit peak food media?

Adweek gives us a resounding maybe:

The sheer number of choices is overwhelming, which may be why there’s been some slippage in the TV landscape: Food Network’s Nielsen rating slipped 4 percent year-over-year, Top Chef’s most recent season premiere drew 1.66 million viewers, down more than 1 million from the series’ highwater mark of season five, and Every Day with Rachel Ray magazine lost 14 percent in ad revenue from last year, according to the MPA, Association of Magazine Media. And critics say the glut of reality-show competitions associated with cuisine has cheapened the culinary landscape. The field is becoming so crowded, goes the argument, that food media is being pushed to absurd extremes.

According to Adweek, there are currently 11 reality shows devoted to cupcake and cake. How much food media is too much for the public to bear?

Do online consumer reviews affect restaurant demand?

One of the more difficult questions in social media is the degree to which online reviews impact upon the bottom line of businesses; and whether bad online reviews cause declining patronage. Harvard Business School’s Michael Luca says yes, and very much so [PDF]. There is not only an impact, but that impact is causal:

Do online consumer reviews affect restaurant demand? I investigate this question using a novel dataset combining reviews from the website Yelp.com and restaurant data from the Washington State Department of Revenue. Because Yelp prominently displays a restaurant’s rounded average rating, I can identify the causal impact of Yelp ratings on demand with a regression discontinuity framework that exploits Yelp’s rounding thresholds. I present three findings about the impact of consumer reviews on the restaurant industry: (1) a one-star increase in Yelp rating leads to a 5-9 percent increase in revenue, (2) this effect is driven by independent restaurants; ratings do not affect restaurants with chain affiliation, and (3) chain restaurants have declined in market share as Yelp penetration has increased. This suggests that online consumer reviews substitute for more traditional forms of reputation. I then test whether consumers use these reviews in a way that is consistent with standard learning models. I present two additional findings: (4) consumers do not use all available information and are more responsive to quality changes that are more visible and (5) consumers respond more strongly when a rating contains more information. Consumer response to a restaurant’s average rating is affected by the number of reviews and whether the reviewers are certified as “elite” by Yelp, but is unaffected by the size of the reviewers’ Yelp friends network.

It is pretty grim news, if you’ve spent the last hundred or so years building up the strength of a chain restaurant’s brand, only to find that increased reviewing is replacing your hard-earned equity. The recognition that certified reviewers actually do have a greater impact in systems like Yelp raises further questions whether these “elite” users follow the crowd or lead it. Duncan Watts and Matthew J. Salganik have done some great research into this, in which perceived success of cultural products online translates into actual success regardless of content, so it is altogether possible that people who contribute online reviews continually reinforce each others reviews for the good or ill of businesses.

Hat tip to Adam Ozimek from Modeled Behavior for the article.

Why are carrots orange?

Carotene. However, if you happen to come across heritage varieties, you’ll notice carrots run through a spectrum of white through to yellow to hues of deep purple. So what caused the dominance of the orange carrot? Ex-Cambodia Daily editor and current Washington Post staffer Suzy Khimm delves into the political history of the carrot, which traditionally links the rise of orange variety to the Dutch House of Orange – a tale which may be of questionable authenticity:

As it turns out, the political history of carrots is more murky and complicated. The  World Carrot Museum–an unsigned, virtual repository of information that Next Nature cites in its original post–calls the link to the House of Orange an “apocryphal” tale dreamed up by historians, though it fails to provide any specific citations for its own conclusion. 

What is clear, however, is that the Dutch themselves have used the orange carrot as a political weapon during the rise and fall of the House of Orange. According to historian Simon Schama, in the late 18th century, the Dutch Patriot movement that revolted against the House of Orange saw the vegetable as an offensive tribute to the monarchy. After forcing the reigning descendent of William of Orange to leave the Hague, the Patriots declared that orange was “the color of sedition…carrots sold with their roots too conspicuously showing were deemed provocative,” Schama writes in his book, “Patriots and Liberators.” To this day, many in the Netherlands attest that orange carrots were originally a tribute to the House of Orange, as various Dutch tourism outfits will attest.

Orange carrots don’t get mentioned in literature until about 1100.

Sausage sizzle or popup charcuterie?

Photo Credit: Wooster Collective

I worked in a food truck for a few months in 1996. The truck parked at automotive parts swap meets and out the front of the cow pavilion at the Royal Easter Show. I cooked hundreds of frozen hamburgers, industrial soy-beef patties defrosting on the grill for families with matching mullets in the real need of a Cortina alternator. The jam donuts, chips and battered hotdogs in the roiling deep fryer, which by the end of the day tasted indistinct from each other, downed by men who smelled sweet like bovine.

The boss was happy insofar as I wasn’t a junkie and nothing caught fire. They paid cash, daily. It wasn’t the worst of food industry jobs that I’ve been involved in. It wasn’t noble. Apparently any non-addict could do it.

Australia has hundreds of similar food trucks and mobile food businesses from Mr Whippy vans to the sausage sizzles in front of hardware retailers. At the moment, there are nine food vans parked in Melbourne’s CBD alone, as shown on the below map. As far as I can remember, they’re all icecream vendors and donut vans.

There is something deeply amusing about both Sydney and the suburban Melbourne councils considering the need for more food trucks when there is already a well developed ecosystem.

The problem is that it’s not the cool street food ecosystem.

The depressing secret behind street food culture is that it exists because there is nowhere else to eat. In Phnom Penh, a good deal of the street food exists because it is too expensive for the average worker to leave their job and go home for a cheaper meal. Despite the backpacker authenticity myth, the bulk of it is as nasty as it is cheap; good street food is so rare that it is almost a euphemism. In Los Angeles, food trucks, especially the semi-permanent Mexican loncheras, offer an oasis in the food desert for factory workers and locals. If anything, they’re stuff white people like because they’re beacons of actual food in a grove of Olive Gardens or whatever pretend food is served in roadside mass-market chain restaurants. In Kuala Lumpur, street vendors develop symbiotic relationships with a cafe, multiple vendors clinging parasitically to a single coffee shop. In all cases, food trucks and street vendors tend not to compete with existing businesses because there aren’t any other existing businesses nearby. All are the result of local conditions.

Generally that condition is poverty, followed by richer people lionising food that poor people eat.

Australia already has a unique street food culture but it is one that is only celebrated on rare occasions because the rich have no interest in replicating or sampling what poor Westerners eat. The footy frank (PDF). The aforementioned Mr Whippy and his alliterative pseudonyms. The election day sausage sizzle. Preserves and cake stands at church fetes. They’re all temporary but not “pop-up” in the baffling modern parlance. Pop-up is used as obsfucation for expensive or designed or from somewhere else, some place where the poor eat capital-A authentic meals.

The unpopular Australian street foods are also the precursor to building a culture of street food but that hasn’t happened because unlike LA or Phnom Penh in the urban centres in Australia there is no shortage of great, easily accessible meals. There isn’t a footy frank vendor on every corner because good food is straightforward to find. In the absence of Michelin stars, many restaurants are awarded imaginary hats by our food press. There’s not even a shortage of good portable food from upmarket pork belly sandwiches to cheap sushi. Beyond the occasional cone of soft serve or post- donut, there isn’t much of a market for heartier food served streetside when you can get a markedly better meal nearby and somewhere to sit and eat it.

It’s certainly not to denigrate the new wave of Twitter-wielding Roy Choi wannabes around Australia: the food itself serves that purpose. Melbourne’s taco truck’s tacos are almost as good as those that you can get in a shopping mall food court. With any luck, the new trucks and popups might bewilder the rich long enough to lead to new restaurants. There is just no deeper culture to support it forever.


View Food Vans in Melbourne CBD in a larger map

Google buys Zagat, but no coverage south of the Equator

Google has bought gastronomic capsule-review bible, Zagat. From the Google blog:

So, today, I’m thrilled that Google has acquired Zagat. Moving forward, Zagat will be a cornerstone of our local offering—delighting people with their impressive array of reviews, ratings and insights, while enabling people everywhere to find extraordinary (and ordinary) experiences around the corner and around the world.

Which is great news, if you happen to live in the top half of the world. Zagat doesn’t have a single guide that covers anywhere further south than Barbados.

For food writing in Australia and New Zealand this means one of two things:

  1. Google buys a local food publication. They’ve got infinitely deep pockets, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility. I just can’t think of anyone worth buying or that isn’t chained to some other empire.
  2. Google opens a Zagat office here. And watch the food editors flee from their offline posts.