USDA: Healthy food isn't really more expensive
May 17th, 2012
09:32 AM ET

USDA: Healthy food isn't really more expensive

We have many excuses for not eating healthy: I’m too busy. I don’t live near a grocery store. I can’t afford healthy food. I don’t know how to cook.

A new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service is taking one of those excuses off the table.

Previous studies have shown that eating junk food is cheaper than eating healthy food. But Andrea Carlson, lead author for the USDA study, said the way those researchers measured cost-effectiveness skewed the results.

Carlson and her team analyzed 4,439 foods in three different ways – price per calories (as previous studies had done), price per edible gram and price per average portion. Retail prices were based on Nielsen Homescan data. The average portion was determined from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The researchers found that when they used the price per calories analysis, fruits and vegetables appeared more expensive. “But this changes when you use other two,” Carlson said in a press call Wednesday.

For instance, take a chocolate glazed donut. Each donut is probably about 240 calories, and you could probably eat two or three of them with no problem (and just a teensy bit of guilt). Then take a banana with about 105 calories.

If these two cost the same, the banana is more expensive per each calorie eaten. But you’ll probably only eat one and feel a lot fuller afterward, Carlson said. That makes it cheaper per edible gram and per the average portion.

“Many have raised concerns that those of modest means … can’t afford a healthy diet,” said Kevin Concannon, the USDA under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. “The good news I take away from the study is that is not necessarily the case.”

Concannon said the study shows that carrots, onions, pinto beans and mashed potatoes are all less expensive per portion than ice cream, sweet rolls, pork chops and ground beef. In fact, protein foods and food high in saturated fat, added sugars and sodium were all more expensive than fruits, vegetables, dairy and grains based on these methods.

“This is great news for all getting by with a limited food budget,” he said. “You don’t have to compromise good nutrition.”

The bottom line, Carlson said, is that there is a range of prices for any type of food you buy. You can find expensive produce and inexpensive produce, as well as expensive and inexpensive junk food.

And while cost is a common excuse offered for not eating nutritionally, it’s not the only barrier. Food deserts make it difficult for some in the U.S. to access fresh produce, and others just don’t want to make the effort.

“Taste always is the first thing people consider when choosing food,” Carlson said.

The USDA offers tips for consumers on how to eat healthy on a budget. For meal plans and more, visit ChooseMyPlate.gov

soundoff (133 Responses)
  1. Karen Barrow

    Of course the USDA says healthy food isn't more expensive. That's because they promote the most unhealthy food group that exists: grains. Even the sodium myth is a cover for what grains do to the body. They should have put more money into squashing the internet than into these stupid studies that nobody believes anymore because of conflicts of interest. The USDA pushes junk food in the form of grains. Even whole grains have the same problem. Choosing a whole grain over a processed grain is like choosing a cigarette with a filter over one without. And why does anyone think oats are healthy????

    September 4, 2012 at 15:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Jamiiiiiie

    I understand cost per portion....but who on Earth would measure cost effectiveness (outside of research) as being cost per kilocalorie? It doesn't make any sense to a real family. If they're buying dollar items at McDonalds, they obviously care about cost per portion, not cost per kilocalorie. And they aren't going to feed their family carrots and potatoes for dinner. Also, I could definitely eat more than just a banana for breakfast before I'm full 😉

    September 19, 2012 at 08:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Deb

      A pound of bananas is only $.69, less than a dollar menu disgusting burger. Or you can get something semi healthy like tomato soup for less than a dollar. I eat potatoes and carrots regularly, why wouldn't somebody feed that to their family? $2.50 for a bag of baby carrots, $3.99 for 5 lbs of red potatoes, $5 for a pound of chicken. Doesn't sound much more pricey to be considering thats enough potatoes and carrots to last my boyfriend and I a whole week. Excuses, excuses

      September 5, 2014 at 13:37 | Report abuse |
    • Deb

      Oh yeah, and you can save money too and NOT spend money by paying for medications and going to the emergency room for a heart attack. You can eat pretty healthy on a budget. Buy produce that's on sale, I just bought a pound of green beans from publix for $1.39. Buy Brown rice in the bag, very cheap. Buy meat that is on sale and measure your portions so you don't eat more than you have to. It takes a little bit of effort, but its worth it. If you don't care about your heart health, than ignore everything that I just said. Eating healthy is NOT that expensive. Yogurt per cup is less than $1! I just bought a box of chex cereal for $1.39. BAM there's breakfast.

      September 5, 2014 at 13:45 | Report abuse |
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    Why is it that people think that fruit and vegetables are the only healthy foods? Rice and pasta are healthy and the are the cheapest foods of all. Long-grain rice at 40p a kilo here in England and pasta at 43p a kilo are low-GI starches and a good source of calories. Pulses, especially yellow split peas, are the cheapest source of protein; much cheaper than any animal protein. A bag of frozen mixed vegetables costs 75p a kilo. There is something called the 'false dichotomy' where you compare two things and talk as if they are the only two alternatives. It shouldn't be junk food versus fruit/vegetables, you have to take into account grains and pulses.

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