August 27, 2012
Laura, Registered Dietitian
Along with the “it tastes like cardboard,” claim, the extra cost of healthy food is often cited as a barrier to healthy eating. This widely accepted belief has been fueled by past studies that compared the cost per calorie of healthy vs. unhealthy foods. Earlier this summer, the USDA put out a report that took a closer look at the cost of food. Not only did they provide a clear definition of healthy vs. unhealthy foods (they graciously called unhealthy foods “moderation” foods), but they set out to answer the question, “ Is there a better way to measure the cost of a healthy diet?” They used three different methods to measure the cost of food and found some interesting results.
- As earlier studies found, when measuring the price per calorie of food, healthy food was more expensive than less healthy food.
- Using the price per edible gram and the price per average portion, healthy food was found to be less expensive than unhealthy food.
- Meeting the USDA’s daily food recommendations was found to be possible in a thrifty food budget as long as fruits and vegetables accounted for a higher percentage of the budget (40%) than average (20-25%).
- Below is an image from the study depicting these results:
Notes: The dark areas of each bar represent the price range for the cheaper half of the foods in the category, while the lighter areas are the price ranges for the higher cost foods. White space at the bottom of the bars represents the start of the price range. Moderation foods are foods that are high in sodium, added sugars, or saturated fat, or that did not contain foods from a food group.
For those of you interested in the research details, read on!
Price per Calorie is straighforward way to measure the cost of foods; however, it does not take into account the typical serving size of various types of food. The photo below represents 100 calories from each food on the plate. Clearly, this does not seem like a realistic way to measure cost of individual food items. How many M & Ms do you eat in one sitting—more than 24? Can you eat 21 strawberries in a sitting? This system seems to inflate the cost of healthier foods that tend to be less calorie dense.
Price per Edible Gram may seem like a possibly more “fair” system of cost measurement. This method takes into account things like food waste and can answer the question, “Is that chicken with bone and skin on really a better deal than that recipe-ready chicken breast?” However, the practicality of this is questionable since the average shopper may not know how much a serving of food weighs in grams. Also, like the price per calorie method, this method also has the weakness of not accounting for the typical serving sizes of each particular food. For example, a single ounce bag of potato chips is going to seem much cheaper than a 10 oz. slice of watermelon.
Price per Average Portion compares the the cost of healthy versus less healthy food by measuring the cost of the average size portion eaten in the US. This seems like a realistic and user-friendly way to measure cost of foods; however, the average American does not eat the recommended servings of fruits, vegetables, or whole grains.
Cost of meeting the USDA’s food group recommendations was also measured. Meeting the protein and vegetable groups showed to be the most costly, but meeting the recommendations for a day was possible under the Thrifty Food Plan budget.
Carlson A and Frazao E. Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure the Price. A Report from the Economic Research Service. Economic Information Bulletin. May 2012; 96. http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/600474/eib96_1_.pdf