A new USDA report measures the cost of healthy foods versus unhealthy foods - those high in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars - and finds junk food costs more.
Does someone you know hit McDonald’s for dinner on a regular basis in a bid to save money on their food bill? After all, many believe that buying “healthy food” costs a great deal more. If you’ve been unsuccessfully trying to make the argument that eating junk food or fast food is more costly, you now have science on your side.
Researchers at the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service recently released a study that investigated the popular perception that healthy foods cost more than what they diplomatically term as “less healthy foods.”
Healthy versus less healthy
They estimated the cost for 4,439 food items in the five USDA food groups (grains, dairy, fruit, vegetables, or protein foods); mixed dishes (such as spaghetti and tomato sauce); and the less healthy food category (high in sodium, added sugars, or saturated fats or containing little to no amount of USDA’s food groups, including canned soups and sodas).
How they measured
The researchers calculated the cost of the foods in three ways: price per calorie, price per edible weight, and price per average amount eaten.
The McDonald’s patron may be forgiven for the commonly held misperception that this food is cheaper since most studies looking at the costs of healthy versus unhealthy foods have used cost-per-calorie as the only measurement.
This metric resulted in vegetables and fruits, which are low in calories (but high in nutrients) being considered expensive sources of food energy. Junk foods high in calories would obviously be cheaper using this metric, but far less healthy since they tend to be higher in saturated fat, sugar, and salt—and lower in nutrients.
Healthy is less expensive
The new USDA study, called Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure the Price,” found that “when measured on the basis of edible weight or average portion size, grains, vegetables, fruit, and dairy foods are less expensive than most protein foods and foods high in saturated fat, added sugars, and/or sodium.”
In other words, oatmeal, broccoli, bananas, and yogourt are less expensive per portion than French fries, cheeseburgers, soft drinks, and ice cream.
Super-size is super-expensive
And though the USDA researchers didn’t measure Super-sized meals (yes, we know McDonald’s phased out this language, though the mega-sizes remain), it’s safe to say they’re super-unhealthy—and, using the USDA’s metrics, super-expensive!
Eating healthy: not so hard
Choosing to eat healthy foods is not as difficult as some people may think. For great ideas on how to load up on good, nutritious—and cheap—food, go to Healthy Living on a Budget, where you’ll find tips on how to buy, make, and grow/make your own healthy—but cheap—food.