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.