Calories vs. portions | Healthy eating’s higher price tag based on faulty logic: researchers
Grocery shoppers across Canada are frequently appalled by the cost of raspberries, asparagus, nectarines and other items in the produce section, but a United States Department of Agriculture economist has determined that fruits and vegetables aren’t more expensive than less healthy food, such as potato chips.
Andrea Carlson, a food economist with the USDA Economic Research Service in Washington, D.C., said it’s commonly reported that price is an obstacle to healthy eating. But after studying the matter with her USDA colleague, Elizabeth Frazao, Carlson concluded the idea that healthy food costs more is based on faulty analysis.
Traditionally, economists have compared the cost of food per calorie, which led to the conclusion that carrots were more expensive than french fries. Carlson and Frazao found that carrots are cheaper than fries if you compare the cost per portion size.
“The key message here is that the metric really changes the story,” said Carlson, who co-authored the report, Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure the Price, which was released in May.
In the study, the economists evaluated the cost of 4,439 foods using three separate methods: price per 100 calories, price per 100 edible grams and cost per portion.
Based on average prices across the U.S., they ranked the cost of those food items from one to 4,439, with one being the cheapest.
Using carrots versus french fries as an example, carrots ranked 3,658 using the measuring stick of price per 100 calories.
Fries, in comparison, were much cheaper per calorie, and french fries ranked 501 out of the 4,439 foods.
Yet, using price per portion size, the situation was reversed. Carrots ranked 560 out of 4,439 food and french fries ranked 1,552.
“When you measure carrots, they’re going to look very expensive because they don’t have many calories,” Carlson said.
But there aren’t many grams in a recommended portion of carrots, so the cost per portion is relatively cheap.
Overall, Carlson found that food low in calories for a given weight, such as vegetables, appear to be more costly when the price is measured per calories. However, when measured on the basis of edible weight or average portion size, vegetables, fruit, dairy products and grains are less expensive than processed food with excess sugar, fat and sodium.
Carlson said the findings are significant because consumers often balk at buying healthy food, because many believe food like extra lean ground beef or cantaloupes are too pricey.
“Change is hard and we always look for excuses,” she said.
“That it might be more expensive is a convenient excuse.”
Carlson hopes nutritionists will use the information in her report to change the public’s perspective on the cost of healthy food.
Consumers can use the report to change their shopping approach, Carlson said. Instead of comparing the price of one item to another, they should consider the number of servings.
“What they (consumers) can do is think about this big bag of lettuce and how many portions can I get out of it? Maybe it’s not as expensive as I thought it was.”
Although she hadn’t read the entire USDA report, Joyce Slater, assistant professor in the department of human nutritional sciences at the University of Manitoba, isn’t convinced the findings are significant.
Certainly, the cost of food influences what people choose to eat, but it’s not the most important factor, she said.
“What people always devolve down to are the fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are expensive.”
Since the U.S. government subsidizes the production of corn and soybeans, processed food is going to be artificially cheaper than fresh food, Slater said.
As well, it’s been frequently written that modern two-income families don’t have time to prepare healthy food. Convenience food, which may be unhealthy processed food, has become more popular with consumers.
Nonetheless, the primary reason why parents and children eat frozen pepperoni pizza instead of homemade borscht is that many adults no longer have the skills to make healthy meals for their families, Slater said.
“There has been a de-skilling of the population … with respect to cooking, food-planning … and knowing how to buy foods,” said Slater, who is studying the importance of home economics in the Canadian school curriculum.
Carlson agreed there are other factors, besides price, which prevent people from making healthy choices.
Taste, convenience and the availability of quality food may all be more important than price, she said.
“If they don’t like broccoli they’re not going to eat broccoli.”
Taste preference aside, consumers can buy and eat vegetables they do like, Carlson said.
People need to realize that fruits and vegetables represent a sizable chunk of the monthly food budget. Consumers spend 20 to 25 per cent of their grocery budget on produce, but they should spend significantly more.
“The thing we find in the United States is that people don’t allocate enough (of their food budget) for fruits and vegetables,” Carlson said. “We estimate for a healthy diet about 40 percent of the food budget should go towards fruits and vegetables.”