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Is Healthy Food More Expensive?

According to a new USDA study, healthy food may not be as expensive as it’s often made out to be.

For cost comparison purposes, foods have traditionally been judged on a cost per calorie basis. But using a cost per calorie comparison automatically penalizes healthier, nutrient-dense options, while favoring calorie-dense and often nutrient-poor options. In other words, the way previous studies have measured cost-effectiveness skewed their results to favor unhealthy options.

Although it’s cheaper to buy 100 calories of potato chips than 100 calories of broccoli, would your dollar actually be better spent on the broccoli? A team of researchers at the United States Department of Agriculture set out to tackle this question.

The research team analyzed 4,439 foods using three different cost comparison methods: cost per calorie, cost per edible gram, and price per average portion.

Although fruit and vegetables appeared more expensive when the cost per calorie method was used, a very different picture emerged when they used a cost per edible weight or cost per typical amount eaten basis.

When ranked by portion size, beef, chicken and fish were the most expensive foods, while grains were the least expensive. Fruit and vegetables were also less expensive than animal protein and “unhealthy foods” such as donuts, potato chips, and other processed items.

For example, the study found that a serving of potato chips is nearly twice as expensive as a serving of carrots. Carrots, onions, beans and potatoes emerged as particularly economical options.

Cost has long been cited as an excuse for not being able to eat well. But this study suggests that those on a limited food budget do not have to compromise good nutrition for cost. A USDA representative was quoted: “Many have raised concerns that those of modest means … can’t afford a healthy diet. The good news I take away from the study is that is not necessarily the case.”

Image Credit: rachelandrew/Flickr