Money for Nothing: The High Cost of Convenient Food

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

Free lunches may be elusive. Unhealthy ones are anything but.

Anyone can walk into (or easier yet, drive up to) McDonald’s, and three minutes later, be gorging themselves on a Big Mac, a pile of fries, and a Coke. If getting up from the couch seems like too much effort, a pizza (with or without hot dogs baked into the crust) is just a phone call and a 30-minute wait away.

On top of being convenient, unhealthy food is cheaper–at least according to conventional wisdom. Whenever we debate the feasibility of a food system based on sustainable agriculture or the intractable nature of the obesity epidemic, invariably, someone blames the high cost of healthy foods and the relative affordability of their less nutritious counterparts.

Newsflash: the conventional wisdom is wrong. According to a new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service entitled “Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure the Price,” healthy foods are not necessarily more expensive than unhealthy foods.

In light of the fact that most Americans’ diets fall short of federal nutrition guidelines, the report set out to determine whether a commonly cited reason for our dietary woes–the high cost of healthy foods–is actually true. In doing so, it examines three different metrics to determine the cost of food–the oft-used cost-per-calorie metric, as well as two alternatives: cost per portion and cost per edible gram. The report found that, in all metrics other than cost-per-calorie, healthier foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy) were less expensive than unhealthy foods (proteins and foods high in saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium).

The report’s methods appear to be sound, and, since not all calories are created equal, the two new metrics are arguably more rational ways to measure the true cost of certain foods. In addition, the findings should reassure cash-strapped Americans that eating foods like fruits, vegetables, and dairy can help us eat healthier and save us money.

The troubling part is that anyone finds the report’s findings at all surprising. A diet that includes (1) less calories, (2) whole foods instead of processed ones, and (3) a steady dose of home-cooked meals has always been healthier and cheaper. Furthermore, the fact that Americans routinely choose to eat diets heavy in processed foods and empty calories suggests that cost isn’t even the primary driver in people’s eating decisions.

The authors of the USDA study acknowledged as much in a conference call on Wednesday, asserting that consumers put a higher premium on convenience and taste than on cost. With respect to convenience, it’s easy to see why unhealthy diets beat out healthy ones: planning a recipe, buying ingredients, and cooking a meal is harder than pulling up to the drive-thru window or microwaving a frozen dinner.

But what about taste? In theory, a home-cooked meal should taste as good as or better than most alternatives–after all, you know which foods you like, and you get to prepare them based on your own taste preferences.

Unfortunately, preconceived notions about “healthy” foods’ lack of flavor combined with a general and growing disconnect from a food culture in which home-cooked meals play a significant role have conspired to make good food taste bad–both in our minds and on our dinner tables.

Still, the USDA report has value. Any time the idea that healthy foods can cost less than unhealthy ones receives news coverage, the conventional wisdom becomes a little less conventional, and a seed is planted in the minds of people who might never have considered the advantages of eating well.

But in a food culture where making tomato sauce and boiling pasta water is considered too hard, or where roasted vegetables aren’t considered tasty, we need to start thinking about factors other than affordability. On that count, we’re failing–and we’re paying for it.

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