Are healthy foods really more expensive than less healthy foods?

August 23rd, 2012

Note: This blog was written by Jenna Leopold, a dietetic student that is interning with me this summer.

“It’s hard to eat healthy these days because healthy foods are so expensive.” This is a common grievance that can be heard from consumers. While browsing the aisles of the grocery store, we often see healthy foods being more expensive than less healthy foods. For example, buying your basic white bread is cheaper than buying whole wheat bread. However, most people don’t take into account that whole wheat bread is much more filling; therefore, you consume less of the product in a setting. We tend to see the instant saving that we are getting when we buy cheaper less healthy foods, and look beyond the long-term savings that healthy foods can give us.

This topic has become an interesting topic especially in today’s economy. Most of the studies done on this topic found that healthy foods were more expensive than less healthy foods based only on price per calorie. This method is flawed because it only measures the energy density (calories) of foods and not the nutritional value. Also, price-per-calorie doesn’t account for the food you consume, making it hard to determine out-of-pocket costs. For example, as explained by the USDA report, “a gallon of skim milk has about half as many calories as a gallon of whole milk. Thus, the price per calorie is nearly twice as much for skim milk as for whole milk. Yet consumers often pay the same out-of-pocket cost for a gallon of milk, regardless of whether they buy skim or whole milk. This is because the price per calorie metric ignores the total costs associated with the total number of calories consumed.”

Since price-per-calorie doesn’t tell the whole story, the USDA conducted a study to take a closer look at other aspect of determining food costs. What the study showed was healthy foods were actually cheaper than less healthy foods in most instances. The three elements measured in the study were the price of edible weight, price of average size portion and cost of meeting dietary recommendation. For price of edible weight and price of average size portion, healthy foods such as grains, vegetable, fruits and dairy products were less expensive than foods that were high in saturated fats, added sugar and/or sodium. When looking at the cost of meeting dietary recommendation, healthy food groups like grains, dairy and fruit were less costly.

In conclusion, don’t let the initial tag price of an item trick you into thinking that item is expensive. Oftentimes healthy foods contain things like fiber and protein that keep you fuller longer. Even though you are spending the money outright, in the long run it is more cost-effective to buy healthier foods because you get more nutritional value from the food. Oftentimes cheaper food options that have very little nutritional value don’t fill you up like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. This often leads you to eat more frequently and therefore spend more money in the long run.

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