In his recent New York Times article titled “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper”, Mark Bittman asserts:
“In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28… In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9.”
It’s the wrong comparison, though. Jogging is a cheaper pastime than sitting on the couch and watching TV (cable packages don’t come cheap), yet our affinity for leisure and convenience comes into play when we choose how to use our free time. The food cost question should more fairly be: Is a junk food ready-to-eat meal cheaper than a healthier made-by-someone-else meal? The answer to that is unquestionably yes!
Is healthier food more expensive?
A new study led by Colin Rehm in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition addresses this question. The study looked at the diet of almost 5000 participants, calculating the cost of their daily food and assessing its nutritional quality. Diet healthfulness was scored taking into account foods and nutrients such as sodium, saturated fats, fruits and vegetables, total vs. whole grains and empty calories (SoFAS: solid fat and added sugar).
The study found a significant positive association between diet cost and diet healthfulness, and this was true for the entire study population, and especially strong for women. But here’s an interesting finding: older adults, women and Hispanics had lower cost diets that were nutritionally higher quality when compared to other population groups.
Another recent study led by Adam Bernstein and including more than 78,000 women came to the same conclusion: It found that spending more money was clearly associated with a better diet. Diet quality was assessed using the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI) -- a scoring method developed by Harvard researchers as an alternative to the US Food Pyramid -- that looks at the consumption of foods associated with lower risk of chronic diseases. Basically, the index gives points for eating fruits and veggies, whole grains, selecting white meats and fish over red meat and unsaturated fats over saturated ones.
But when the researchers divided the participants to quintiles according to their level of spending, they found that within each spending group there was quite a lot of variation in diet healthfulness. The diet healthfulness index for each spending group varied by as much as 29 index points, and just to put that number in perspective, a 20 percent increase in the AHEI score is associated with 25 percent lower risk of heart disease.
So this study, too, finds that there are ways to improve diet without adding cost: adding nuts, soy, beans, and whole grains, while reducing meat and dairy would improve the overall diet without increasing spending.
In another recent article Adam Drewnowski examined the cost of various foods compared to their nutritional content. He found that the cheapest foods per calorie or per serving are grains, sugars and fats, while fruit and vegetables are relatively expensive. Drewnowski argues that subsidies to wheat, corn and soy have led to increasingly cheap foods, rich in calories and poor in nutrition, and that “The fact that healthful foods cost more than less healthy options is a formidable real-world challenge for nutrition interventions”.
Unhealthy food’s lure
The raw ingredients that make a healthy diet are more expensive than those that make a less healthy one.
Experts overall agree that what’s most lacking in the average American diet is fruits and vegetables and foods with low caloric density. By definition, and also just as a matter of fact, these kinds of foods have a higher cost per calorie than grains, fats and sugar, and since people living on tight budgets look also for foods that satiate (i.e. food with calories a-plenty), they’ll opt against fresh produce (full of water and fiber) in favor for calorically dense food.
But that’s not the main problem. The bigger problem is that highly processed foods are weirdly inexpensive, and when affordable meets palatable, convenient, attractive, ready-to-eat ready-to-heat and highly advertised – the product becomes almost irresistible.
It’s possible to eat well on a budget. Not all vegies and fruit are expensive and you can do quite well shopping for carrots, oranges, potatoes and beans. Slow Food USA is proving through its $5 challenge that you can cook real food for $5 per person. But doing so requires organization, cooking skills, time and determination. Before the age of highly processed foods people with low incomes would often grow their own food, eat very little meat and add very little sugar – sugar used to be expensive. Nowadays a low budget diet is more often a highly processed, fast-food diet, because nothing combines cheap with convenient and desirable as seamlessly.
Changing the culture
Bittman describes our relationship with fast-food as an addiction; we view home cooking, on the other hand, as “work”. So how do we move from the quick fix offered in every corner to a culture that promotes simple, no-nonsense everyday cooking? We need to convince people, especially kids, that fast-food isn’t food, isn’t cool, and we need to celebrate real food and have some fun cooking. I’ll end with Bittman’s resounding words:
“To make changes like this more widespread we need action both cultural and political. The cultural lies in celebrating real food; raising our children in homes that don’t program them for fast-produced, eaten-on-the-run, high-calorie, low-nutrition junk; giving them the gift of appreciating the pleasures of nourishing one another and enjoying that nourishment together.
Political action would mean agitating to limit the marketing of junk; forcing its makers to pay the true costs of production; recognizing that advertising for fast food is not the exercise of free speech but behavior manipulation of addictive substances; and making certain that real food is affordable and available to everyone. The political challenge is the more difficult one, but it cannot be ignored.”