Thursday, May 17, 2012

Healthy food not more expensive

In contrast with the conventional wisdom that healthy food costs too much, USDA's Economic Research Service this week reports:
For all metrics except the price of food energy, the authors find that healthy foods cost less than less healthy foods (defined for this study as foods that are high in saturated fat, added sugar, and/or sodium, or that contribute little to meeting dietary recommendations).
The argument turns largely on three different methods of measuring the cost of food:
  • price per unit of weight ($ / 100g of edible weight)
  • price per serving ($ per cup or ounce equivalent)
  • price per unit of food energy (cents per Calorie)
Based on the third method, people frequently say healthy food is too expensive.  Based mainly on the first two methods, USDA argues instead that healthy food is reasonably inexpensive.

You might think this is a delightfully arcane and nerdy point of contention.  Yet, the new study has major news coverage today, including a surprisingly complete explanation of this whole units issue.  The Wall Street Journal quotes one of the report's authors, my colleague Andi Carlson:
Often, less-healthy food options are made up of empty calories, prompting people to eat even more, said Andrea Carlson, lead researcher of the report.
"Take a chocolate glazed donut which is 240 calories," she said. "You can easily eat one, if not two or three without any trouble at all. However, a banana, which has a lot of nutrients in it and will make you feel quite full, has only 105 calories. You will feel fuller if you eat the banana versus the donut."
I can think of reasons to like each measurement method in certain circumstances.  Beverages provide an example of a comparison where it seems the per-serving approach is sensible.  If we compare the cost of milk to sugary soda, a per-Calorie comparison makes soda look cheaper when it really just has more Calories.  The per-serving comparison better captures the choice consumers really face.

On the other hand, if you think of the cost of a day's food supply, consumers' bodies generally regulate total food energy intake.  For such comparisons, perhaps price per unit of food energy does make some sense.

For those who want more detail, here is a summary graphic from the USDA report.  It is a bit complex.  Generally, the high-carbohydrate category is fairly inexpensive, which corroborates the conventional wisdom.  But, the fruit and vegetable categories are less expensive than meat by the preferred second and third measurement methods, which is USDA's main point.


a progressive crank said...

As I noted (briefly) on the Twitter machine, this is good news if you read the labels (and they're accurate and informative) and you have access to Real Food (i.e., you don't live in a food desert).

I really don't how many people read labels, either for nutritional info, serving size, or ingredients. I have been of the Michael Pollan school (ingredients I can recognize and pronounce and not too many) for some time. But I also wonder how many shoppers use the shelf tags for pricing? You'll remember the arrival of the 13oz pound and we see other packaging stunts all the time it seems.

Moionfire said...

I would also add that healthier food can be bought in bulk. Plus if people just cook from scratch they can make more portions. TV dinners only last one meal. While a pot of rice and beans can last 3 days if you make enough.