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How an Economist Looks at Food: An Interview with Tyler Cowen

Spending good money on bad food isn’t great for your wallet or your waistline, but most consumers do just that.

“Most people are stuck in a rut — we’re our own worst enemies,” says Tyler Cowen, author of the new book, “An Economist Gets Lunch.” He says people often buy the same products their parents did out of blind brand loyalty, or pick the same restaurants for their consistency.

But eating better and saving cash might be as simple as a few behavior tweaks. Frugal Foodie talked to Cowen about how consumers can find good food deals when shopping for home and while dining out:

Mid-Century Mistakes

Frugal Foodie: So, why do Americans spend so much money on such bad food?

Tyler Cowen: We give kids too much of a say in what we eat. Kids like things that are sweet and gooey. We’d do better to eat more like the French, who expect the children to elevate themselves to the level of the parents. It’s the whole orientation of food toward the child, and fast food.

I also think our food is bad because the U.S. made some key mistakes during the early to mid 20th century. We opted for prohibition and a lot of long-distance transport, and cut off immigration, all at a time when food markets were growing rapidly. That shunted us onto a track where everything is processed and becomes a kind of mass-market junk food.

We’ve been moving back toward fresher ingredients in the past 20 to 30 years, but we spent most of the 20th century moving in a direction that isn’t so tasty.

What to Buy at Asian Markets

FF: In your book you talk about shopping at Asian markets. Why are they such a good deal?

Cowen: They’re mostly trying to appeal to Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese immigrants. They’re used to low prices, a lot of vegetables, a lot of choice in particular areas. And they’re very fussy shoppers. For the supermarket to succeed, it has to appeal to these individuals.

So if you shop in these places, you will get prices which are much lower, typically a very good selection of greens, probably a very good selection of seafood. In these areas, you’ll do much better than going to Giant, Safeway, Kroger, whatever.

It comes down to the clientele, and do you want what they want? If you want peanut butter, go to your Safeway. But if you want good greens and interesting seafood, go to the Chinese or Korean market. You’ll find that you’ll discover new things instead of buying high-market items that a supermarket would try to trick you into buying.

Why Buying Local Might Be a Waste

FF: What about buying local and eating green?

Cowen: By far the thing that helps the planet the most is to eat less meat. The other thing that’s effective is to make fewer trips to the supermarket. So when you so  go to the supermarket, buy more in bulk or combine a trip with some other trip you would have made. Those have some impact.

It’s hard for one person to have a significant impact, but the idea of buying local is very often a waste. Most of the energy cost of food is not in the transportation and very often, local farmers are not energy efficient. They run small-scale operations, they drive around in their trucks, and they’re not, in general, environmental paragons.

Complex Dishes are Your Safest Bet

FF: In your book you also lay out some rules for dining out, including looking for complex dishes. Why?

Cowen: When you’re in the U.S., ordering complex dishes is a good rule to follow. You need to realize that the raw ingredients in your country usually aren’t that good, unless you’re paying a very large amount for your meal, which is usually not the case.

There’s a lot of human capital in creativity in this country, so you’re basically looking for a skilled entrepreneurial chef who’s creative at blending and mixing things. That’s what our economy is good at, which means those are the kinds of dishes you should order.

If you’re in Italy, say, where there’s less immigration and it’s a more static economy, you’re looking more for that pure, perfect raw ingredient just sitting on the plate. You could order mozzarella and tomato with just some olive oil on it. It’s a very different approach.

The Rules for Ordering Seafood

FF: Another of your rules is not ordering seafood unless it’s local and you’re close to the ocean. How does that tie in?

Cowen: Good seafood is getting harder and harder to find and because we’re depleting the oceans, it’s getting more and more expensive. You tend to get inferior or substituted product, so ordering seafood is maybe the single thing you should be the pickiest and choosiest about and suspicious of.

More and more seafood simply isn’t that good, mostly for economic reasons. If you’re in, say, the Caribbean or in Central America and you’re literally right on the coast, that’s your best chance at getting good seafood.

Economic Signs of a Good and Bad Restaurants

FF: What other economic signs point to a good restaurant?

Cowen: Look for competition. If there are a lot of restaurants offering a particular cuisine, that’s a good sign that they’re doing something right. Look at the customers: are they people who have your attitude toward food? In many ways, that’s the best sign. Look for places that are frequented by locals, by people who know what they’re doing.

FF: What’s a bad sign?

Cowen: Be suspicious of places where the people are all happy and laughing and you see a lot of beautiful women. A lot of ventures sell trendiness, a bar scene or a social scene, or a neighborhood atmosphere like in an old blue-collar tavern. And that means they’re not “selling” the food.

So walk into a place and ask yourself, “What are their economic incentives? Who are their customers, what’s their clientele, and how does that relate to me and what I want out of that experience?”

Skip the View

FF: A good view can hurt, too, right?

Cowen: Places that have a great view tend to be overpriced for what you get.

Traveling and Eating Well

FF: How does that find-good-food approach change when you’re traveling, and really not familiar with the area?

Cowen: If you’re traveling, one of the things you can try is Google. If that doesn’t pay off for you, it’s back to the basic laws: look for competition, look for fresh supplies, and look for informed demanders. Even if you’re just out and about walking around, use your wits and you can usually eat very well following those simple rules.

When in Doubt….

FF: And when in doubt, ask the taxi driver to take you somewhere good?

Cowen: Oh yeah, people in general whose job means they move around a lot know where to eat. Firemen are another example. Look for ones who are maybe not too young, say, over age 40 but below age 50. Ask them for a recommendation and just do what they say.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.