With all of the talk about cheap unhealthy food vs expensive healthy food it is useful to consider what metrics are being used. The USDA takes a look at some of the issues. (pdf)
Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure the Price
Andrea Carlson, Elizabeth Frazão
Most Americans consume diets that do not meet Federal dietary recommendations. A common explanation is that healthier foods are more expensive than less healthy foods. To investigate this assumption, the authors compare prices of healthy and less healthy foods using three different price metrics: the price of food energy ($/calorie), the price of edible weight ($/100 edible grams), and the price of an average portion ($/average portion). They also calculate the cost of meeting the recommendations for each food group. For all metrics except the price of food energy, the authors find that healthy foods cost less than less healthy foods (defined for this study as foods that are high in saturated fat, added sugar, and/or sodium, or that contribute little to meeting dietary recommendations).
Keywords: Food prices, price metric, cost of food, price of healthy foods Acknowledgments
The authors would like to thank Christian Gregory, Hayden Stewart, Jessica Todd, Abebayehu Tegene, Ephraim Leibtag, Elise Golan, and Laurian Unnevehr of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, Colette Rihane, and Mark Lino of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, and Leah Lipsky, of the National Institutes of Health, for their helpful comments.
° Foods low in calories for a given weight appear to have a higher price when the price is measured per calorie. For example, vegetables and fruits, which are low in calories, tend to be a relatively expensive way to purchase food energy.
° Conversely, less healthy foods (called “moderation foods” in this report)—especially those high in saturated fat and added sugar—tend to be high in calories and to have a low price per calorie.
° When measured on the basis of edible weight or average portion size, grains, vegetables, fruit, and dairy foods are less expensive than most protein foods and foods high in saturated fat, added sugars, and/or sodium.
° In following the food group recommendations at ChooseMyPlate.gov, it is less costly to meet the grains, dairy, and fruit recommendations than those for vegetables or protein foods.