Eating better, for less money

Does it really cost more to buy healthful foods? Maybe not.

According to a new study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, most fruits, vegetables, grains and other foods we think of as healthful are actually cheaper per portion than foods with higher amounts of sugar, salt and fat.

The report contradicts a rather long-standing belief among many folks that it’s more expensive to eat well – a belief bolstered by a number of previous studies that have found higher costs for healthful food choices.

So who’s right?

The answer seems to lie in how you calculate it. Most studies that examine food costs have used a standard metric: the cost per calorie. The USDA researchers decided to look at this a couple of different ways. They estimated the cost for each of more than 4,000 food items – 4,439, to be exact – and then crunched the numbers to come up with the price per calorie, price per edible weight and price per average portion consumed. They also calculated the cost of meeting the government’s daily ChooseMyPlate recommendations.

Here’s what they found:

- When the price is measured by the calorie, lower-calorie healthful foods do cost more – but this is mainly because of the math. It takes far more broccoli, for instance, to equal 500 calories than does a cinnamon roll.

- When the cost is measured by weight or serving size, healthful foods are generally the better bargain.

Our perception that the U.S. nutritional guidelines are unaffordable for many households may simply be a matter of the metrics, the study’s authors suggest. Price per calorie may be “one way, but not the only way, to measure the cost of a healthy diet,” they wrote.

Andrea Carlson, an economist and co-author of the study, told USA Today, “We have all heard that eating a healthy diet is expensive, and people have used that as an excuse for not eating a healthy diet… but healthy foods do not necessarily cost more than less healthy foods.”

She notes, “The price of potato chips is nearly twice as expensive as the price of carrots by portion size.”

There are many other factors, of course, that go into the consumer’s decisions in the grocery aisle. Some fresh fruits and vegetables genuinely are expensive, especially when they’re purchased out of season. For many people, the time and cost of preparation are a major consideration; it’s more work, after all, to rinse, trim, cut up and steam a head of broccoli than it is to pick up the phone and order a pizza. The metrics of cost per calorie vs. cost per serving or cost per edible weight also don’t address food availability, which is an entirely separate – and important – issue.

But there’s clearly more than one way of looking at food costs. Carlson suggests the best way to think of it is by portion size. “How much do you have to pay to put something on your plate?” she asks.

7 thoughts on “Eating better, for less money

  1. I’d be interested to see how frozen or canned fruits and veggies stack up to all of that. Sure, a fresh bunch of broccoli is hard to chop up, but a steam-in-the-bag frozen portion is just as easy to make as a pizza.

  2. The report didn’t really break this down, although the authors noted that some forms of fresh food are more economical than others – for example, dry beans vs. canned. They did suggest that if you want to compare among various forms of the same food – fresh vs. canned vs. frozen – the metric that apparently makes the most sense is price per edible weight. If you buy fresh asparagus out of season, it’s probably going to be cheaper to buy it frozen, yet you’d essentially be getting the same thing in terms of nutrients.

    • No, the metrics were only designed to measure cost per calorie, cost per edible weight and cost per portion, based on average food prices compiled from the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. It would be interesting to do the math with food prices for a specific community – a rural food desert, for instance, or a low-income neighborhood. Would the results be different? I wouldn’t mind seeing more research on this.

      For me, the message was that perhaps we need to think about food costs in a different way. I can’t believe how much my grocery bill has gone up in recent months, but does the total retail cost really reflect the value of what I’m buying? Foods that are more expensive, objectively speaking, might actually be a bargain if you get more per edible weight or serving size, and it’s nutritious besides.

      All of this can look quite different if healthy foods aren’t very available where you live. Even if you live in a food desert, though, I can’t help thinking it could be helpful to have more than one way of evaluating food prices. It might be a tool to help people make the most of whatever food dollars and food availability they do have.

  3. No new news to me; I’ve known this for years. I am one of those “weirdos” who likes to cook from scratch, and who is trying to feed my family a more healthy diet, without a lot of pre-packaged, heavily-processed foods. I found years ago that these habits seem to stretch my grocery budget farther.

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