The old theory that healthy foods are a luxury that a tight budget can’t afford is just that – an old theory – according to a government study released Wednesday. 


Researchers at the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) analyzed more than 4,000 retail foods and found that when measured in price per edible pound, fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy were cheaper than most proteins and foods high in saturated fat, added sugars and sodium. 

These findings are positive for people trying to meet the national dietary guidelines, which call for an increase in consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fat milk.


“This is great news for all of those who are trying to get by with a limited food budget,” said USDA’s Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon at a press conference Wednesday. “You don’t have to compromise on food nutrition just because money is tight.”

That goes for people enrolled in nutrition assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) too, he noted. For the millions benefiting from these 15 programs, the commonly held belief that wholesome foods are out of reach is “not necessarily the case,” he said.

If healthy food is so affordable, why are nutritious foods often thought of as expensive? 

Because previous cost studies have used a different system of measurement based on energy, says Andrea Carlson, co-author of the ERS study. 

When you look at price per calorie, she explains, a 240 calorie donut is going to be cheaper than a 105 calorie banana. However, the calories from a donut are empty and will leave you wanting more, whereas a banana will fill you up. 

That’s why Carlson and co-author Elizabeth Frazao looked instead at price per edible pound – the cost of food by weight after preparation – as well as price per average amount eaten by adults. They used the standard price per calorie metric as a reference point. 

Of all food categories, dairy was the cheapest when it came to price per edible weight and price per average eaten, followed by grains, then fruits and finally vegetables. Less healthy foods such as chocolate bars, French fries and ground beef, tended to be more expensive per gram. 

But just because good food is affordable doesn’t mean people will choose it. A main message of the study is that both healthy and unhealthy foods can be found at low or high costs. While most healthy foods might be cheaper on average, low-priced junk food and sugary drinks are still out there. 

“We do know from other studies that taste is always the first thing people consider when they’re buying food,” said Carlson. “Taste and convenience generally outrank even price.”

But lack of convenience shouldn’t turn people off of healthy foods, she says, because they don’t have to take long to prepare. 

“I’m thinking that we haven’t lost the ability to open a can of beans yet,” she said. “I know that cooking skills are lacking but I know that we can still use a can opener. In terms of fresh fruits, wash them. The preparation is really quite minimal.”

Another solution is frozen vegetables, she suggests. 

Of course no one is claiming that the fight against obesity in America will be won if people know that vegetables or dairy products can be cheap and easy to prepare. This information is one piece of the puzzle, explained Dr. Robert Post, Deputy Director for the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion at the press conference.

“When we’re talking about obesity and concerns for increasing illnesses related to diet, we’re talking about a very complex situation and we’re talking about changing the food environment.”

In order to improve American eating habits, USDA has rolled out a multifaceted campaign to promote a healthy diet, represented by the MyPlate image of what a nutritious plate should look like and supported by an educational campaign to teach people about the importance of healthy eating.  

  • Mannie

    The government also claims inflation is under 3% and unemployment only about 8%. Out here in the real world inflation has soared, at least 1 in 10 people are out of work and boutique “healthy” foods are not cheap by anyone’s standards — conspicuous high price is their hallmark, “cheap” (i.e. affordable) foods are aggressively smeared by elitist foodies.
    Government shifts ways to measure things to suit itself. My credit card company doesn’t seem to shift their monthly statements to keep pace with government. Why is that?

  • Justin

    This is an important study pointing up inherent contradictions in our so-called “cheap food” system. People are actually paying a HUGE amount for empty calories…
    As an example, run the numbers on a Snickers bar. One bar costs $1.19 at the local convenience store. It weighs 2.07 ounces bringing the per pound cost to $9.20 per pound! Do the math on your favorite junk food.
    The tobacco companies blazed the way with the hyper marketing of addictive products that are fundamentally killing us… slowly. Bottom line — it’s not price. Cheap food is cheap only in its lack of quality

  • Rosa

    This is not a realistic study for the families that struggle to meet a healthly diet in a fixed income . Natural food to include fresh fruits and vegetables are more expensive than process vegetables and fruits. This study per calories does not account the raw materials that are needed to complete a healthy meal. When we are cooking for example lasagna for 5 people we need to count the cheese, pasta, sauce and meat; if we want this high calorie meal to be healthier we need to buy all the ingredients whole wheat( more expensive than regular ingredients) when we go to the frozen section of the grocery store we can find a lasagna for more that 2 people for approximately $4.99 , that’s the price of the meat ( 96 % lean meat) needed to make this meal for 5 not to include all the ingredients. These frozen meals are cheaper and higher in sodium.This is also not realistic for families that have to prepare meals for member that have an specific diet requirement like gluten free.

  • Marion

    Michael Pollan has it about right when he says “food is too cheap”. Cheap food can never be healthy food and healthy food can never be cheap or there would be no point being seen purchasing it. Affordability misses the whole point of elitist conspicuous consumption.

  • Rachael

    I grew up in a family of 4 kids with parents that did not always have steady employment. We rarely, if ever, bought pre-prepared meals. But all 4 of us learned how to cook and how to bake and learned about balanced meals because we all took our place in the kitchen to help and in the grocery store to see how to purchase foods. Our parents taught us and led by example, something that is lacking in todays society.
    If you take your lasagna example, using coupons and sale items, I can purchase enough supplies to make the lasagna and have leftover ingredients for additional meals, while still making it healthier and making more product than the freezer meal provides.
    You don’t have to use whole wheat pasta to be healthy, if eating a diet balanced with your food groups, whole wheat pasta is not necessary, it is an excuse. It takes planning and it takes time, which isn’t always available. But it is possible to eat healthy and for less cost than processed foods.

  • Miles

    Healthy foods are only for the privileged classes. What makes our government think we will tolerate competitively priced healthy foods? Isn’t it just like the government to blow what they mistakenly think is sunshine up our butts, only to insult our sense of social superiority? Tsk tsk, such gauche common rabble employed at the ERS.

  • Sera

    Bravo Rachael. It takes very little effort to prepare healthy food. Meals can even be prepped weekly, and frozen for later use – you really don’t have to do the big cooking routine every day.
    Healthy food elitist? Our forebears would roll their eyes. That distinction belongs squarely with prepared “convenience” foods, which pound-for-pound are more expensive. Do the math – convenience foods are priced per weight right on the shelf. Possibly excluding ramen noodles or mac-n-cheese – but most people I know don’t categorize them as “real food” anyway.

  • Beans

    You can’t get much cheaper (or healthier) than boiling up a pot of dry beans, or rice, or barley, or potatoes, or plain oatmeal. Add a bit of one or more of the cheapest vegetables (onion, carrot, squash, cabbage, celery, greens, tomatoes). Add a small amount of the cheapest meat, or a bit of the cheapest cheese, or milk, only if you can afford it. Keep only the cheapest fruits on hand (bananas, whatever’s in season, raisins), and divide it among family members as needed. That is, if you can’t afford a whole banana per person, you can put just a couple slices on each person’s oatmeal. Beverage = that stuff that comes out of the kitchen faucet. School or work lunch = leftovers from the pot in a thermos with maybe a bit of extra cheese and some raisins.

  • When we lose our ridiculous sense of entitlement, we will learn that eating healthy foods is not only less expensive, they can also be delicious!
    Why is there absolutely NO time in anyone’s day to make a pot of rice and beans with some frozen veg in there? Add a whole wheat tortilla and a sprinkle of cheese and you have a fantastic dinner and lunches for a few days. Takes less than 30 min (brown rice takes a bit more but c’mon, it’s sitting on the stove minding it’s own business the whole time). Not hard!!!
    Why do we need to use the lasagna excuse as a reason why no one can eat healthy? Who eats that more than once in a while anyhow? Make it with no meat-cheaper…make two and have one for another night for pennies more. Although I make my own noodles(don’t judge, I like my own the best), a box of lasagna noodles cost .99 and you only need 9 noodles to make 1- 9 by 13 inch pan (that’s a cake pan to the uninitiated). That still leaves you with a few noodles to add another layer if you want to, or make a mini lasagna in a bread pan, to freeze for another day. A number 10 can of plain sauce is less than 3.00(with tons extra), or buy a pre-seasoned sauce for a couple of bucks if you like. Cheese-buy a little package on sale, ignore the brand name and shop for what one is on sale. $1.89, may be 2.00. A container of cottage cheese in place of ricotta 1.50 or less. No matter what seasonings you add, doing nothing else but combining these ingredients, will yield 12 pieces of lasagna. Good size pieces-no mini bites.
    There are always going to be plenty of excuses for why we can’t do the right thing. Instead of using your energy whining, why not use it making a few simple meals and do your health a favor? Yeesh..

  • Col. Montague G.R. Monroe III, Esq.

    I am repulsed, horrified by this bourguois advocacy of rice and beans as acceptable healthy fare. Prince Charles does not consume rice and beans. Alice Waters does not plop a sticky gob of rice and beans in your bowl and call it stylishly healthy (well, she does but she overcharges the bejeezus out of you for it and that makes it wonderfully OK). Healthy food is exquisitely rare, being coaxed from the earth by the undivided attention of an unwashed hippie (or an unwashed unpaid urban farming intern), it is uniquely bug chewed into a randomly deformed one-off visage. Health food must never be confused with rice and beans. Cretons!

  • Beans

    Dry beans take a lot longer to cook than 30 minutes, but you can boil up a big pot of them and eat them all week.
    I’ve seen people buy dry pinto beans cheap in 50 lb sacks. A lot of them don’t have cars, so they borrow the shopping cart to walk the food home. The grocery store periodically sends a truck around the apartment buildings to pick up the shopping carts. A lot of these folks make their own tortillas from scratch (or buy them from their neighbors who do) and make their own vegetable preserves/pickles, sometimes from vegetables they grow on their balconies. During the work week they live on mostly homemade burritos filled with rice, beans, preserved vegetables, and a little cheese. Meat and other more expensive foods (salads, fruits) are eaten mostly just on weekends.
    Brown rice is often more expensive than white. However, you can sometimes find it cheaper. I saw 20 lb sacks recently at a Chinese market for about $8. I think white rice is fine though if you eat it with a lot of vegetables. The same store was selling big bags of fresh greens (something like spinach) for under $1. That’s an awful lot of healthy food for the money, and that store does excellent business.

  • Mildred

    Trendy boutique foods not expensive? These government statisticians obviously do not shop at WholeFoods or Trader Joe’s.

  • Me

    Why does the “government’ continually LIE about everything? They must think we’re all morons if we don’t notice the skyrocketing costs of fresh fruits and vegetables, not to mention the price of organic meats. Just shut up.

  • Yea Healthy Foods Are Not Expensive when compare with un-healthy foods… but most people go with fast food (unhealthy food).

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  • Maya

    So glad someones saying it. The convenience of eating junk “food” isn’t the price, it’s the instant preparation and salt/sugar/carb fix which people allow themselves to become accustomed to. Preparing dinner should not take 2 minutes. For somebody who is unemployed or on welfare, it becomes even more inexcusable to claim preparation time as a reason for feeding their family unhealthy garbage. Sure if you want Trader Joe’s or cherries in November it’s going to be ridiculously expensive. Solution? Buy what’s in season in your local Walmart produce section. Chicken/protein ~$2/lb. Produce ~$1-2/lb. Rice 50cents/lb. It is pathetic that anybody could claim frozen dinners are what the poor are forcibly subjected to eat. I budget ~$250/mo for groceries, eat a lot of lean protein and vegetables, and I am never hungry. Another happy side affect is that I am never fat, my teeth are not rotting and I am learning an enjoyable, useful activity which enriches my life. Cost is not the problem, it is lack of standards, laziness and entitlement.