Consumers are firmly convinced that healthy food is more expensive than junk food. A new study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service says that might be because we are making the wrong comparisons.
Andrew Carlson and Elizabeth Fraz„o turned to the USDA’s online guide, ChooseMyPlate, as a template for modeling a healthy diet. Using three different data sets, they estimated the cost of 4,439 food items.
The results are encouraging. “Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure the Price” shows that just looking at calorie costs, as earlier studies did, is too simplistic. For example, a bag of potato chips might be cheaper than a baked potato, compared calorie for calorie. But you might need to eat two portions of chips to equal the nutrition in a potato, and the chips would deliver more of what we don’t need, such as saturated fat and sodium.
To give a more accurate picture, Carlson and Fraz„o used three different metrics: price per calorie, per edible gram, and per average portion. When they overlaid the three, they discovered that grains, fruits and vegetables actually deliver more value for less money than less healthy foods.
The authors conclude:
When making food choices, consumers may need to consider the entire cost of their diets. Cheap food that provides few nutrients may actually be “expensive” for the consumer from a nutritional economy perspective, whereas a food with a higher retail price that provides large amounts of nutrients may actually be quite cheap.
That’s important. As I pointed out in We Are Killing the Kids, the cost of a diet heavy in what the authors of this study call “moderation foods” (processed foods with high levels of salt, sugar or fat) is a tsunami of added health care costs that threatens to swamp our health care systems.
Just what constitutes a healthy diet is the subject of ongoing and vigorous debates. A lot of other factors are part of the equation as well, such as environmental pollutants, access to fresh foods, cooking skills and time.
Specifics and disagreements aside, what this study adds to the conversation is reassurance that a healthy diet is within most people’s budgets.
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