Capitalism to the Rescue of American Health

Free trade could be about to save the health of Americans everywhere.

I see this trend via a few data points…

Whole Foods Closing Stores for the First Time since 2008

After 6 straight quarters of sales declines Whole Foods is shutting some of its stores and decreasing its plan to grow to 1,200 stores.

Why? Not because of lack of demand, but because of too much competition.

Other retailers have noticed the demand for healthier products and are shifting shelf space to accommodate them.

Companies like Bai

Bai’s original drink was a light juice-type beverage with only 5 calories and a single gram of sugar. They now also carry lightly carbonated drinks with & without caffeine, some sweet teas, and flavored water.

All their drinks come in at under 5 calories and they taste fantastic.

Bai’s “job to be done” is great taste without sacrificing on health. A big part of their success has been using a proprietary erythritol and steve leaf extract which doesn’t affect your glycemic index.1 They started from scratch in 2009 and were acquired at the end of 2016 by Dr. Pepper Snapple for $1.7 billion.2

Menus that Focus on Calories per Consumption Unit

By “consumption unit” I mean things like individual bags of chips: products meant to be eaten in a single go. 100% anecdotally I see more of these popping up.3 I’m seeing more air and less product in the same size bags.

This also includes restaurant menus with sections like “fish under 400 calories.” 

(To be clear, I don’t mean state mandated calorie counts for all food items on a menu)

It’s Become Lower Class to Eat Fast Food

To be clear: I mean class in the sense of culture, not income or wealth. (Please, please read this for the best piece on class I’ve ever read.)

Eating healthy could very well become an aspirational good. Imagine if people valued commoditized food the same way we value commoditized shoes and sportswear.

The rise in “fast casual” dining is IMO a direct effect of this.

It’s Easier for Markets to Influence Diet than Exercise

I don’t claim to know if weight gain is a symptom of a cause of bad health…

But I do know that it’s easier to lose weight if you focus on diet over exercise. And I think that’s for the better… it’s easier to get someone to buy and eat a healthy meal than it is to get them to go outside and run in the heat for 30 minutes.

Reasons to be Pessimistic

I am hopeful, but boy are there some big caveats here.

First, free trade gives people what they want, and human beings are built to want sweet, high-caloric food. So from day 0 we’re fighting against human nature. (Of course that’s always been the case, and we haven’t always been this unhealthy…)

Second, our general state of nutritional science, aka “do we know what food is good/bad for us and why” is astonishingly bad.

Every diet, whether it’s Keto, Atkins, Whole30, high protein, Paleo, or whatever… all seem to be their own type of religion:

  • They’re operating in their own worlds with their own sets of rules
  • They all have individual success stories they can point to as “evidence” for why their food rules are The Correct Health Rules
  • Their rules are usually mutually exclusive with the other diets
  • They seem to be oblivious that other diets with mutually exclusive rules also have their own success stories so they can point to people in their health tribe as evidence that their rules are The Correct Health Rules

Add to that the fact that the Food Pyramid can apparently change quite dramatically 4 and it feels really hard to be confident about very much related to nutritional science. The best I can come up with is what I call “the physics diet”: eat less energy than you use.

This 2nd part is particularly important because of part 1: capitalism gives us what we want, so we better make freaking sure that we want the right stuff. If our nutritional science is lackluster how can we know what to buy?

All that said I’m still optimistic. Free markets are generally underestimated… if people really, truly want to be healthy and we are correctly informed, the market will go through walls to make it happen.

Picturing the same power that brings 91,000 people out of poverty every single day fighting on behalf of our health is a wonder to imagine.

  1. Whether this is even a healthy thing to focus on is a fair question and covered below.

  2. I didn’t realize the acquisition had happened until doing research for this post. I’ve been drinking Bai products for a year or so and can’t recommend them enough if you want a slightly sweet drink without being super sugary or feeling like a soda. They were my bet to be the Coca Cola of the 21 century until I read about the acquisition. I’d have trouble turning down $1.7 billion, too.

  3. “Servings” is a dumb measurement IMO because it’s totally arbitrary.

  4. Why does it feel like no one things this is a big deal other than me?