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Healthy Foods Not Necessarily More Expensive Than Less Healthy Ones

Fruits and vegetables appear more expensive than less healthy foods when the price is measured by calories rather than by weight or by amount in an average serving. The price measure has a large effect on which foods are determined more expensive.Fruits and vegetables appear more expensive than less healthy foods when the price is measured by calories rather than by weight or by amount in an average serving. The price measure has a large effect on which foods are determined more expensive.

Fruits and vegetables appear more expensive than less healthy foods when the price is measured by calories rather than by weight or by amount in an average serving. The price measure has a large effect on which foods are determined more expensive.

Most Americans’ diets fall short of Federal recommendations, especially when it comes to whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and fruits and vegetables. Some nutrition researchers and food writers blame cost, saying fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods are more expensive than less healthy ones.  And on a per calorie basis, that’s true.  Calorie-sparse fruits and vegetables cost more than a donut, and skim milk costs more than whole.  But is price per calorie the only way to think about a food’s cost?

My ERS colleague Elizabeth Frazao and I wanted to look at other price measures as a beginning point in answering the question of whether price is a hurdle to making wiser food choices.  We calculated price in three ways:  price per calorie, price per edible weight, and price per average amount eaten.  Price per edible weight is the price of the food after it is cooked, and the seeds, peels, skins, shells, and bones have been removed.  Price per average amount is the price of the average amount consumed by adults who reported their food consumption in a national survey.

We assigned each of over 4,000 foods in the survey to one of the five USDA food groups (grains, dairy, fruit, vegetables, or protein foods); to mixed dishes (such as spaghetti and tomato sauce); or to the “less healthy” food category.  To make it into a healthy food group, a food had to contain specific minimums of at least one of the USDA food groups and had to fall below a maximum amount of saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium. Less healthy foods were defined as those high in sodium, added sugars, or saturated fats, or containing little to no amount of USDA’s food groups.  Less healthy foods included items such as many canned and dry soups, fruit-flavored yogurt, and sodas.

On the plate are amounts of various foods providing about 100 calories each. A price comparison based on calories would not tell the consumer how much it would cost to purchase the amount of these foods typically consumed. Photo: Joseph Sanford

On the plate are amounts of various foods providing about 100 calories each. A price comparison based on calories would not tell the consumer how much it would cost to purchase the amount of these foods typically consumed. Photo: Joseph Sanford

We found that the price measure used has a large effect on which foods are more expensive.  If we use price per calorie, fruits and vegetables tend to be more expensive than less healthy foods.  In contrast, if we use price per edible weight or per average amount eaten, then grains, vegetables, fruits, and dairy foods are less expensive than most protein foods and less healthy foods.

We also estimated the cost of meeting individual food group recommendations as detailed on the ChooseMyPlate.gov website.  The vegetable recommendation is the most expensive to meet – and it’s because of the amount recommended. Check out more of the findings in our report, Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure the Price.

6 Responses to “Healthy Foods Not Necessarily More Expensive Than Less Healthy Ones”

  1. Karen Wagner says:

    And now what? How will/can the public be educated to understand the trade-off values and full-cost pricing, in relation to food purchases & their well-being? What incentives will there be to spend more on the best foods? A “less is more” (fewer calories = more value) campaign might be in order [again?].

  2. Michael Z. Wellington says:

    I would simple like to know what the cost is to achieve the best health , consistent with USDA pyramid guidance, that is “normally achieveable to the person who haslimited or no accesss to kitchen, heating, cooling, and storage facilities, as a bleneded rate and not by micro-analyzing the manner for the calculations, because, while nerds might apprciate this (and I consider myself a nerd), this does not represent how the indidviduals that are on welfare budgets have the ability or interest in shopping.

    Thanks for an honest reply.

  3. Beefeater says:

    I really do not understand the food industry in continuing to confuse and not having a dry matter percent nutrient content measure. This is a true measure of the relative value of food used by farmers feeding livestock for generations. When this concept is understood, true values would shock most people and the cost of the water in most would be revealed. For example the cost of most vegetables range $20 to $50 per lb Dry Matter and beef, especially predominately grass fed is a least cost essential at about $10. In terms of Omega 3′s(except for some fish) and other essentials in balance including CLA and saturated fats it is many times the value of most foods, and an evolutionary staple, beginning to be again recognized by science as essential, center of plate, food for optimum health.

  4. Dr. Verel Benson says:

    Why didn’t you use a linear program with the recommended daily nutritional requirements as restraints to compare the lowest cost combinations? The animal industries use this method to formulate feed mixes that meet calorie, key proteins, minerals etc. for the least cost.

  5. Michael says:

    I would like to have seen healthy foods defined in this report as organic & non-GMO.

  6. carol curtiss says:

    I don’t understand these measurements. However, I do understand my food bill, and that it is very definately higher when I purchase healthier food..Period.

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