Dear Economist: Should I eat cheap food to save money?

You have advised readers that, in blind tests, most people like the taste of inexpensive wine, and that their impressions of wine are more closely correlated with the price tag than with expert opinion. In other words, it is possible to save money by drinking plonk. In these straitened times, can we draw similar conclusions about food?
Harry Nicholas, Los Angeles

Dear Harry,

My gurus in these matters are the members of the American Association of Wine Economists, and a new AAWE working paper, “Can people distinguish pâté from dog food?”, suggests an answer to your question. The authors were the “Gonzo Scientist” John Bohannon and two food critics who had worked on the earlier findings on cheap wine.

The appearance of food is key, so it was an important breakthrough to realise that dog food and pâté look much the same – once the former has been blended to a mousse-like consistency and garnished with parsley. In order to win over some subjects without deceit, the experimenters began with a wine-tasting session. Subjects were then offered two quality pâtés, two cheap imitations (puréed liverwurst and puréed spam) and the dog food – all accompanied by Carr’s water biscuits.

The results were surprising. Subjects overwhelmingly rated Dish C (the dog food) as the least tasty. However, few actually thought Dish C contained dog food. Broadly, people thought that Dish E (the liverwurst) was the dog food; they also thought it tasted good. Disappointingly, most people correctly identified the expensive pâtés, and the blind-taste rankings correlated exactly with the (unseen) price tags. In other words, there are no bargains to be had by serving dog food to dinner party guests. No wonder economics is known as the dismal science.

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