Getting Value For Your Food Dollar: Nutrition vs. Cost

In the doctor’s office, I saw the cover article of a recent issue of Time magazine was Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food. Inside were some interesting facts. For one, people in the U.S. actually spend less on food now than 30 years ago:

For all the grumbling you do about your weekly grocery bill, the fact is you’ve never had it so good, at least in terms of what you pay for every calorie you eat. According to the USDA, Americans spend less than 10% of their incomes on food, down from 18% in 1966. Those savings begin with the remarkable success of one crop: corn. Corn is king on the American farm, with production passing 12 billion bu. annually, up from 4 billion bu. as recently as 1970. When we eat a cheeseburger, a Chicken McNugget, or drink soda, we’re eating the corn that grows on vast, monocrop fields in Midwestern states like Iowa.

I was most concerned with the actual nutritional value we get from our food. If you look at calories vs. cost, again we see that the foods with the most nutritional value cost the most. This is similar to my popular post exploring What Does 200 Calories Cost?, which found bread and pasta on the cheap end, and fresh fruits and vegetables on the expensive end.

Result: The cheap and filling food has way too many empty calories.

A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips or 875 calories of soda but just 250 calories of vegetables or 170 calories of fresh fruit. With the backing of the government, farmers are producing more calories — some 500 more per person per day since the 1970s — but too many are unhealthy calories. Given that, it’s no surprise we’re so fat; it simply costs too much to be thin.

So what is there to do? The Time article suggests that organic is one way to go:

Organic food continues to cost on average several times more than its conventional counterparts, and no one goes to farmers’ markets for bargains. But not all costs can be measured by a price tag. Once you factor in crop subsidies, ecological damage and what we pay in health-care bills after our fatty, sugary diet makes us sick, conventionally produced food looks a lot pricier.

Personally, I think we should start with finding the foods that provide the best balance between cost and nutrition. I’m still learning, but am trying to incorporate things like lentils, beans, and whole grains into my white-bread-and-rice world. Also, we’ve started buying a “box of vegetables” from a local organic farm (see Community Supported Agriculture). We don’t get to choose what goes in the box and are thus forced to be creative, but on a per-pound basis it costs less than half what a grocery store would charge for non-organic equivalents.

Comments

  1. Organic food is no different nutritionally from regular food. If the argument is that healthy food is *too expensive* how is organic food a good idea? It will just discourage people from buying healthy food.

    Anyway, the problem with this analysis is that it’s impossible to eat all your calories of vegetables. Even if you spend the $8/day it costs to get 2,000 calories of vegetables, you are going to have to eat a ridiculous amount. For example one radish has around 1 calories. Can you eat 2,000 radishes?

    So looking at *calories* is not the right way to go about it. There’s nothing wrong with getting most of your calories from grains and fat. It’s just really important to eat vegetables as well. Indeed research on the health benefits of vegetables shows that you get the benefits by *adding* vegetables to your diet, not necessarily because you eat 0 calories from fat.

  2. I would like to know how a $1 buys all those vegetables and fruit in that picture. Maybe a $1 buys 3 of those oranges but thats about it. Same with vegetables. In my cheap grocery store it’s $1 for one red or green pepper. I would like to know where this study is buying there food from cause I want to shop there.

  3. The picture represents the food group… not the amount of “food” it will buy. I am sure you can get a lot more potato chips than the handful shown in the picture with one dollar!

    Anyway, what you are able to buy with $1 is the number of calories… not the number of fruits, vegetable, sodas, chips in the picture. The picture is only for illustrative purposes. So, that you understand what the research is talking about when it points out to “fruits” or “chips”.

    So, in very simple terms, $1 buys you 170 calories of fruit not 3 oranges, 2 apples and 1 pear.

    What is 170 calories of fruits, you might ask? that is a different question, but I think you already answered it… probably around 3 oranges!

  4. CK, $1 probably can buy 170 calories (ie not a lot) of in-season fruit. Think bananas.

  5. Shopping the perimeter of the grocery store (getting the produce, fresh dairy and all the refrigerated items) is the easiest way to buy healthy stuff. Only venture down the aisles for stuff you already planned to buy before you came. Organic? It’s more expensive than regular produce and sometimes, quite frankly, doesn’t look as appetizing. I see much better produce in the regular sections. If you eat a lot of veggies, fruits, and whole grains (if you can stomach them, I can’t always), you’ll be fine. I don’t think organic is nearly as important as trying to stay away from processed stuff in boxes (or bags of potato chips for that matter). Produce, in my opinion, is not really all that expensive — and as for not getting bargains at a farmer’s market, I always used to get bargains at our farmers market. That was one of the reasons people shopped there. The smaller supermarkets usually have good deals on fruits and veggies, even in Manhattan. The all-night name brand super-supermarkets usually have the most expensive stuff. And does a $1 really buy 870 calories of soda? One 2-liter bottle usually runs (these days) around $1.49 — and seriously, no one sits down and eats a bottle of soda for dinner!

  6. Brown rice vs white rice??? Is the extra nutrition from brown rice worth the extra cost over white rice? Based on what I’ve seen on the nutrition labels, brown rice only has 1 gram of fiber per serving compared to 0 gram for white rice. That’s the only real difference that I can see. There’s much more difference between whole wheat vs white bread so to me it makes more sense to spend extra on whole wheat bread rather than brown rice.

  7. AS i learned or being brainwashed by commercial, that organic are free from pesticides, chemicals and so and so forth. That’s why they are damn expensive. So, the next question, by purchasing & eating these organic food, can we really live healthier and longer?

  8. Check out the movie King Corn – it used to be on Instant viewing netflix. It highlights the troubling practice of government subsidizing corn. The corn goes to high fructose corn syrup, which we put in everything, goes to feed lots to fatten beef, and goes to ethanol, the biggest energy loser we’ve created to date. Not to mention the damage we’re doing to our water supply and soil.

    Maybe a government subsidy for organic farming would encourage smaller family farms to go organic and develop sustainable farming methods. or more money for community gardens to teach people how to grow their own food.

    mimi- yes, some people do sit down and eat a bottle of soda for dinner! Go to a truck stop and watch how many truckers fill up their trucker mugs – which are usually 2 liters, check the fountain drink sizes – often as large as 2l. and Supersize me interviews an obese couple in the hospital who consume 6-8 liters of soda each day. Go to a walmart in Missouri or somewhere similar and look for shopping carts with nothing but mountain dew and Doritos. Some people are living like that.

    I continue to argue for an increased high fructose corn syrup tax, a fast food tax, double the tobacco excise tax, and alcohol tax. Things with high externalities should have taxes – sin taxes – to pay for the rising cost of healthcare and universal coverage.

  9. I would still find it hard to beleive that one week’s worth of frech vegetables, meat and so on would be more expensive than eating fast food and other processed foods for a week.

    When I made the switch to “all-fresh” and no more junk, although I didn’t track it, I know I saw substantial savings.

    I would have to see some cold hard data befoe I would belive that premise.

    And even if it were true, as much as I like to save, I would never ever buy junk food if it were found to be cheaper.

  10. I find that it’s all relative. If you compare food with food, vegies don’t seem to come on top. But factor in going to doctors because you eat lots of sweets or calorie dense food, then it doesn’t compare. My organic strawberries cost $2 – $3. But so does a bag of chips and unless I want to eat chips as my main meal, one should actually consider that “extra money spent”.

    Also, eating packaged food (pasta, canned foods, even bread), costs more than just buying vegies and raw ingredients. But you pay with your time in preparation.

  11. I am a firm believer that organic food (non-GMO, whole foods, low-hybridized, etc.) provides more nutrition that conventional food and the long-term benefits will more than pay for themselves through a healthier life.

    Organic fruit and vegetables that don’t look as ‘appetizing’ as conventional ones has more to do with perception. Agribusiness spends a lot of money convincing people that perfectly-formed apples and fluffy heads of lettuce are normal. They become that way through pesticides and hybridization. Anyone who has sampled fruit off a wild tree or grown their own vegetables know that nature is not perfect.

    Many people can afford to spend a little more to eat healthier, especially as the cost of food has dropped. In the long run it really is cheaper.

    • Just because you believe it doesn’t make it true, There is no scientific evidence that Organic food is any more nutritious than regular, non-organic food. If it helps you sleep better at night, that’s great. There is no way to really conduct a cost-benefit analysis with food because we can’t prove that organic food are any better for you than non-organic. There isn’t even a correlation between eating organic and life expectancy.

  12. This is not an option for everyone, but if you are in the right location, but I tend to find that fruits and veggies are way cheaper in Asian markets than in my local grocery store. Tomatoes happen to be my favorite food, and I doubt I’d find tomatoes for 39 cents a pound anywhere else, like I did in Chinatown this week. In an ideal world, I’d like to always buy organic, but as its not really feasible budget wise, I figure in saving money by going to Chinatown, I have the extra money to splurge on organic food when I can.

    It’s not a perfect system, but I think its a step in the right direction. While it might be nice to be organic all the time, I don’t think many people can afford it. I did read an interesting article in which they recommended to pick and choose, buying organic for foods that tend to soak up chemicals/you eat the skins (like strawberries, peaches, etc) and skipping it for fruits like oranges, bananas, in which you don’t eat the outsides. Again, not the ideal, but a compromise for someone who is trying to be healthy on a budget.

    Also, in terms of getting deals from farmer markets, you really have to shop around. The one near my house? The prices are laughable. I only end up going there to get free samples if I’m in the area. There’s another farmers market, however, that I go to because it does have good deals. It also happens to be the farmers market right next to Chinatown. Coincidence?

  13. fractalbrothers says:

    The only thing that’s wrong with your statement, Alan, is that almost everything is hybridized. Corn as we know it wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for humans hybridizing plants. Corn comes from a type of grass that looks kind of like wheat, and has been hybridized by the Aztec, and later American natives into what we know today.

  14. Organic foods are made according to certain production standards. Under organic production, the use of conventional non-organic pesticides, insecticides and herbicides is greatly restricted and saved as a last resort.

    If livestock are involved, they must be reared without the routine use of antibiotics and without the use of growth hormones, and generally fed a healthy diet.

    So far no scientific evidence supports the idea of organic fruit, vegetables and meat are more nutritious than other food. The main reason or benefit of choosing organic food over conventional food is that it contains less esticides, insecticides ,herbicides and growth hormones in the food we consume, which will defenitely benefit us in the long-run.

  15. I am a firm believer that organic food (non-GMO, whole foods, low-hybridized, etc.) provides more nutrition that conventional food and the long-term benefits will more than pay for themselves through a healthier life.

    Alan, you can obviously choose to embrace whatever beliefs you want, but where’s the evidence?

    Nobody in the entire world is going to dispute that vegetables are better for you than processed foodstuffs. Nobody in the entire world is going to dispute that FRESH vegetables generally taste better than unripe, non-fresh vegetables. But where is the evidence that organic food is more nutritious as you claim?

    I know you think that “agribusiness” is a big evil entity, but who do you think grows most of the organic food in America (or in China, since a large percentage of organic food is grown in China)?

  16. Whenever “organic food” is mentioned in an article; people always say you should shop at the Farmers’ market or a CSA. But what is preventing these farmers from using pesticides on the crop?

    Or am I missing something?

  17. Great post, as usual. Makes me want to go out and join one of those veggie co-ops to get a basket a week like you. It also helps me feel a lot better about our enormous food budget when compared to other families.

    As far as organic is concerned, the current recommendations from pediatricians regarding organic versus pesticide/herbicide foods is that if you are on a limited budget you don’t have to buy everything organic. Stick to the foods that it makes a big difference with: ketchup (because kids eat a lot of it) and strawberries and other berries because the herbicides/pesticides can soak in to the fruit. Fruits with thick rinds aren’t as permeable to the chemicals so they aren’t as much of a concern. However, we like to go without the chemicals as much as our budget will allow.

  18. As a health care provider I see people every day who are in the process of destroying their health because of what (and how much) they eat. Some of them are teenagers. Far too many Americans (OK almost everyone) eat more calories than is optimally healthy.

    If you are concerned about cost, start with eating less. I am always puzzled by diet commercials that say “lose 20 pounds for only fifty dollars,” when losing weght will save money if one simply eats less. The other economiser is, eat food you prepare yourself. It costs less and is almost always healthier.

    Lastly, the health benefits of fruits and veggies is enormous. They contain almost none of the bad fats that cause so many diseases. Their sugar absorption is slowed by the fiber they contain. Also, they contains lots of water and fiber which makes them satisfying if you don’t let yourself become too accustomed to eating unhealthier food.

    Worry less about doctor bills, than what is is like to have your quality of life destroyed by poor health.

  19. 1. Weight loss is all about Calories In vs. Calories Out plain and simple. If you take in more calories than your body uses, the rest get stored as fat and you gain weight. The opposite is also true.

    2. Every diet should consist of the correct amounts of fat, protein and carbs (fruits and veggies fit in the carb category).

    Eating fat does not make you fat.
    Eating carbs do not make you fat
    Consuming more calories than your body can burn MAKES YOU FAT!

    Spend the extra money it takes to live a healthy life. It will help to lower your health care costs as you get older.

    All you need to know about weight loss

  20. The nutiritional profile of organic food may not be any different from non-organic, but the methods of production make a huge difference.

    If all the externalities were priced in to the cost of processed foods and large-scale agriculture, I think the cost comparison would change dramatically.

    What’s the cost of restoring a depleted aquifer, drained by irrigating huge monocultural fields? Or the loss of habitat for wildlife and fish, cause by damming rivers? How much would it cost to restore all the topsoil, sucked of all its nutrients and turned to blowing dust or polluted with salts by repeated re-use of irrigation water? What’s the sum total of environmental damage caused by soaking petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers?

    It’s not so much that these things are “bad.” It’s that there’s no price signal to incentive behaviors that avoid the massive and long-term depletion of resources.

  21. This was in the news like a month ago:
    Organic ‘has no health benefits’
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/8174482.stm?lsf

  22. Here’s the study mentioned above. The title is “Poverty and obesity: the role of energy density and energy costs”.

    http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/reprint/79/1/6.pdf

  23. What’s the cost of restoring a depleted aquifer, drained by irrigating huge monocultural fields? Or the loss of habitat for wildlife and fish, cause by damming rivers?

    So let me get this straight…you’re claiming that organic produce precludes using irrigation or damming rivers or large farms? That’s interesting, I’ve never once seen anyone attempt to claim that before.

    How much would it cost to restore all the topsoil, sucked of all its nutrients and turned to blowing dust or polluted with salts by repeated re-use of irrigation water?

    Have you ever been on a farm? What exactly do you think they look like?? This comment just doesn’t make any sense?

    What’s the sum total of environmental damage caused by soaking petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers?

    You tell us — what exactly IS the damage?

  24. It would go a long way to lowering the cost of healthcare in the US if the government stopped subsidizing corn. As the article says, all those cheap, empty calories encourages people to become obese. And the costs of obesity to everyone in the health system are enormous. It seems pretty basic to me that we shouldn’t give people a financial incentive to become unhealthy, if we are going to subsidize anything the graphic that Jonathan presents tell me that we should subsidize fruits and vegetables.

  25. DCnTN and Robert: Essentially, you are correct. However, our bodies and brains are complex. We’ve evolved overtime to consume available amounts of fat, salt and sugar. The more we eat, the more we want, and it’s a vicious cycle. So, even though the calorie in/calorie out is the basic formula, what we eat will create effects on our blood sugar and brain chemistry and lead to false senses of hunger and cravings for bad stuff For the full explanation of why see: The End of Overeating. Very fascinating stuff.

    Akb, I agree. I have a fantasy that Congress will reverse USDA’s subsidy scheme. Commodity crops out – fruits and veggies in. That would go a long way in making fruits and veggies cheaper and processed food more pricey. I work in ag, most farmers just want to grow crops and make a decent living. With a little warning of the change, I think they’d get right on board.

  26. In regards to calories in/calories out. If a person cuts their calories back too severely, their brain will tell the body to go into a survival mode. Body temps drop, hair grows more slowly, cellular turnover slows, reproductive systems slow, and lethargy will set in as a tool to limit energy output and so forth.

    So yes calories in/calories out is true in that it doesn’t matter whether those are fats, carbs or proteins, but the real trick is to eat one percent less than you consume on a longer term basis, and is what everyone finds so difficult.

    Lastly it is true that science has formulated modern processed foods to push all the buttons evolution has given us over thousands of years, but there is still flexibility there. That’s why the apple that may be unappealing while full, may taste much better when one is hungry. And getting unused to super high calorie foods can be done over time.

  27. Alan,

    You can believe what you wish, but you are flat out wrong about Organic foods. They are NO MORE nutritionally valuable than any typical non-organic version of the same food.

    This is a widely believed myth. Organic foods simply are not “better” nutritionally. That is not to say they do not have other perceived benefits. Extra nutrition is simply not one of them.

  28. 250 calories from veggies is probably as filling – or more – than the comparable calories from coke or chips. the 250 calories definitely have more nutrients.

    Reduce calories=>reduce bodyfat=>improve health=>reduce healthcare-related expenses. Improved health should lead to a better quality of life and improved job performance.

  29. Scientist and humanitarian Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, saved over a billion people from starvation over his lifetime. He just died 2 weeks ago at age 95.

    Here is an interview from about 10 years ago. Read his (expert) thoughts on food production.
    http://www.reason.com/news/show/27665.html

  30. It’s funny, but I read the same article at the dentist’s office.

    I for a kind of bad-food tax that makes the bad foods at least subsidize the good ones. I know it would be difficult to make a perfect bad-food tax, but anything would be better than what we have now.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I find farmers’ markets a decent place to save a dollar or two.

    We’ve been thinking of getting a CSA shipment as well. In fact it’s just Laziness that we haven’t.

  31. Jules,

    You are correct “…what we eat will create effects on our blood sugar and brain chemistry and lead to false senses of hunger…”

    * Simple carbs have a negative affect on blood sugar.
    * Trans fats make you feel hungry among other bad things.

    So while it’s true that calories in/calories out is the formula for weight loss/gain/stabilization, it must be stressed that eating the right foods is very important also. There are lots of unhealthy skinny people walking the earth.

  32. Please read ‘In Defense of Food’ by Michael Pollan. It should answer all of your questions and doubts about organic food.

  33. Wow! great post!

  34. As a Canadian living with socialized medicine, which is truly wonderful, I don’t think bringing in healthcare reform will change people’s diets. Here in Canada, we still have a lot of obesity and high fructose corn syrup in our foods. In fact, Canadian ketchup is sweeter than American ketchup.

    It is education and lifestyle choices that will ultimately change people’s health outcomes.

    I read the Omnivore’s Dilemma and started to look at how pervasive corn is in our ‘natural’ bath and body products.

    My company makes castile soap and I have created a video called ” Are You Washing With Corn”- view http://mountainskysoap.com/corn.php

    People have to make choices as to what they buy, as that will drive the market, their health and the planet’s overall sustainability.

  35. A recent Time article also noted that best way to lose weight was to modify your diet–that means cutting down on the carbs and sugars. It all goes together.

  36. Oatmeal is a great purchase in terms of cost vs nutritional value. I wrote a post about it here: http://www.uglychart.com/2009/03/11/the-ultimate-breakfast-oatmeal/

  37. S at Baby For Cheap says:

    hi, jonathan, letting you know that i’ve cited this post in an article on my site, which on tumblr so trackbacks are personalized and hand-typed :-)

    my article weighs the value we get from a meal choice and considers the time cost as well.

    The True Cost of a Meal: Nutrition, Dollars… and Time?

  38. i think that micky ds is so scrumpcious but strawberries are so good to!!!!! so i do not know if i should quit junk and start fresh? cuz i swear im gonna die from it!

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