Burgernomics 101: Burgers and Obesity

By Maria Khim, Arsen Mamikonyan, and Adam Marcus

The foods a person eats say a lot about them.  What about the foods a community eats: can we learn something about a group of people by studying the foods that are available to them?  To answer this question, we analyzed Locu’s collection of millions of local merchants and restaurants to get a picture of communities based on the food they put on the table.  To start off, we focused on America’s staple food, the burger, in order to see what it can teach us about obesity.  What we found surprised us:

  • The skinniest counties in America have the largest of per-capita burger offerings.
  • An abundance of cheap burgers is a signal of an obese county.
  • Counties with more diverse burger offerings (ostrich, anyone?) tend to see less obesity.

The Dataset, and A Burger Popularity Contest

We looked at 176,356 burgers offered in the 15 most populous states.  Our analysis spanned more than 600 types of burgers (grouped by common terms), including pizza burgers and ostrich burgers. The median price of a burger was $8.49.  Here are some of the most popular ones:


If Burgers Could Talk, What Would They Tell Us?

You may have heard of the Big Mac Index published by The Economist, which uses McDonald’s Big Mac prices to measure purchasing power parity between nations.  We were curious how far we could extend burgernomics, and analyzed how burger availability, access, and diversity relate to adult obesity trends.

Adult obesity and burger availability: not what you’d expect.  We placed the counties in our dataset into four groups (equal-sized quartiles for the descriptive statistics nerds out there) by their adult obesity rates.  In each group, we measured the number of restaurants and burgers available for each 10,000 people. The bars in the chart below represent the median county’s burgers per ten thousand people, and the error bars represent the 25th and 75th percentiles.


It turns out that counties with higher obesity rates have lower per-capita burger offerings! (We saw an even stronger trend version of this trend in overall per-capita restaurant availability.) One reason for this potentially counterintuitive finding is that low overall food availability might co-occur with high obesity.1 We do not yet know which way, if any, the causality between food availability and obesity goes, but it does suggest we can improve our understanding of the world through the lens of food. 

Obesity and cost. Below, we look at the least obese (green) and most obese (blue) counties, and compared the price distributions of their burgers. The chart makes it clear that cheap burgers are more popular in high obesity counties. While we can’t say that one caused the other, it certainly feels like the wrong incentive mechanism for a community to stay healthy.


Let them eat brie. Not all burgers were created equal. We’ve seen burgers ranging from a typical McSnackieSnack to a novel black bean vegan patty with mint-infused mango chutney. We wondered if the diversity of burger options available in an area has any relationship to the obesity rates in that location. Using Locu’s detailed menu data, we categorized up to 600 different types of burgers (e.g., turkey, pepper jack, Hawaiian, truffle, etc.) offered in each county based on the same name and keyword classification we used to rank the most popular burgers above.

The results below are arguably the most striking in just how large a difference we see between the least obese and most obese counties. We see that the least obese counties see the largest variety of burgers, whereas the most obese counties see little variety. This suggests that food diversity might be an interesting signal for other socioeconomic factors.


So What?

With Locu’s data, we were able to knock down the idea that high burger availability is a signal for high obesity rates: in fact, the opposite seems to be true. We also found that burger price and diversity are good markers of obesity in a population. Greater and more diverse burger options are characteristic of less obese communities, which lends itself to a more general hypothesis that greater and more diverse food options are correlated with healthier communities.

In the future, we want to explore what these findings mean for food deserts, where healthy food options are few and limited. Given how much of an effort we’ve made to eradicate such deserts in the face of research suggesting such efforts might not be effective, we hope that the nuance our massive collection of price lists offers can shed more light on the topic.

We’re at the start of a longer journey to measure the impact of food access and how it relates to other socioeconomic factors. What we really want to answer is how and why. For example, how and why do greater percentages of cheap burgers and high obesity occur together? Is one directly driving the other or are they both an artifact of a third variable such as income or education? As Locu collects more data and observes changes in prices and availability over time, we’re excited to see how our data can help us understand social challenges such as poverty and obesity. 

We’d love to hear your thoughts and takes on some of the trends we’ve noted. What other trends and issues would you like to see investigated?

The food availability we are evaluating pertains to dining options offered at restaurants and does not take into account other food options provided by supermarkets, convenience stores, etc.

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