Farm Fresh Less Expensive Than Junk Food, Study Finds

May 25, 2012

For those who have espoused the view that farm policies have made unhealthy food inexpensive and have thus contributed to the over-consumption of junk food, USDA says it’s time to think again.

A new study, titled “Are Healthy Foods More Expensive,” found that previous assumptions about junk food being less expensive were based on a biased analysis that calculated food costs based on the price per calorie.

“Using price per calorie doesn’t tell you how much food you’re going to get or how full you are going to feel,” said Andrea Carlson, scientist at the USDA’s Economic Research Service and an author of the study.  Carlson and her team analyzed 4,439 foods in three different ways – price per calories, price per edible gram and price per average portion.

Comparing the cost of foods by weight or portion size shows that grains, vegetables, fruit and dairy foods are less expensive than most meats or foods high in saturated fat, added sugars or salt.  Which, in short, means that foods like bananas, carrots, lettuce and pinto beans are all less expensive per portion than French fries, soft drinks, or ice cream.

Carlson demonstrated by comparing the purchase of chocolate glazed donuts to bananas.  Each donut is probably about 240 calories, and most people could probably eat two or three of them.  If these two cost the same, the banana – which is only 105 calories – is more expensive per each calorie eaten.  But you’ll probably only eat one and feel a lot fuller afterward, Carlson said, which makes it cheaper per edible gram and per serving portion.

“If we use price per calorie, fruits and vegetables tend to be more expensive than less healthy food,” Carlson wrote on the USDA blog. “If we use price per edible weight or per average amount eaten, then grains, vegetables, fruits and dairy foods are less expensive than most protein foods and less healthy foods.”

Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, says that the new study should make people rethink some long held assumptions about food costs.  The research “challenges the widely held belief that ‘Gee, I just can’t eat healthily affordably,’” he said.

Concannon noted that 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.”

Carlson admits that it’s still true that the USDA’s vegetable recommendation is the most expensive to meet because the recommended daily allowance for vegetables is so high, but she noted that there are ways to eat cheaply by choosing the right foods, like cabbage, onions and beans.

So for those looking to throw every criticism in the book at farm policy to see what sticks, it might be time to look for another line of attack.