Finally: USDA Study Calculates True Cost Of Healthy Eating (Guess What? It’s Cheaper)

In a new study calculating the true cost of healthy foods compared with packaged and processed goods, whole, fresh foods emerged as the best way to keep grocery costs down. By “true cost,” I’m not talking about including long-term expenses associated with eating poorly. Nope: On a pure serving by serving basis, foods like carrots, onions, beans, potatoes, and lettuce cost less than soda, candy, French fries, chicken patties and Uncle Ben’s.

There have been quite a few studies trumpeting how much more expensive it is to eat a healthy diet, but most have relied on flawed methodology. My favorite is this study from last summer, which calculated the cost of health food based on the purchase habits of families in one educated and affluent county, to conclude that eating right would cost the average family $380 more per year (if the average family purchases mangoes and avocados instead of bananas and potatoes, that is).

Other studies have calculated cost based on price per calorie, instead of price per serving. Which seems silly, because obviously you’re going to get more calories per bite with, say, queso dip, chips and canned ravioli than with broccoli, oranges and zucchini. But in an age when calories are cheap (and that’s part of the problem), who cares? Using the price-per-calorie method, a head of lettuce would “cost” more than a can of soup, even though that lettuce could be used for several meals instead of just one (and contains more nutrients, less fat, less sodium, etc., than canned soup).

The most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study calculated food costs using price per serving or portion—which seems to make a lot more sense, doesn’t it? According to Andrea Carlson, an economist and co-author of the report, “the price of potato chips is nearly twice as expensive as the price of carrots by portion size.”

Some of the other least expensive foods and drinks by portion size included:

Corn tortillas
Onions
Coffee
Lettuce
Pinto beans
Multigrain bread
Peanut butter
Carrots
Orange juice
Popcorn
Eggs

By category, the least to most expensive by portion were:

Grains
Dairy
Vegetables
Fruit
Protein
Misc. less healthy foods

Notice the miscellaneous less healthy foods category—which the researchers used to describe cookies, candy, desserts, granola bars, cereals and other items that didn’t fit other categories and were particularly high in sugar, sodium and/or saturated fat—is the most expensive by portion. Grains were not only least expensive by portion but also by calorie or weight.

Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian and author of S.A.S.S.! Yourself Slim, told USA Today:

“Many of my clients are surprised to find that their grocery bills don’t go up when they swap processed goods for fresh foods, especially when they buy in-season produce and they’re eating ideal portions, meaning three ounces of cooked chicken, rather than six.”

Just giving up soda to drink fresh-brewed hot or iced tea, or water with a wedge of in-season citrus fruit can be a huge cost savings, she says. “And many of the healthiest superfoods in the market are inexpensive, such as beans and brown rice.”

Ultimately, when the researchers used weight and portion size as guides, healthy foods were, on average, no more costly than unhealthy ones. You can always find healthy foods that are cheap and healthy foods that are expensive, Carlson said. The same with unhealthy foods.

Most people allocate only about of 20% to 25% of their food budget to fruits and vegetables, she added, but it should be more like 40%.

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    • Mandy Seay, RD, LD

      Great article! Some people may even see greater cost savings when purchasing bulk in season boxes from farmer’s markets or local farms. These tend to be cheaper than the organic produce at the stores.
      -Mandy Seay, RD, LD
      http://nutritionistics.com/