All in the Math! New Study Tries to Bust Perception about Cost of Healthy Foods

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Is it true that eating healthy – meaning lots of fruits and vegetables – really more expensive? New research may turn that belief on its head.

    A new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture compared the prices of healthy and less healthy foods using three measures – the price per calorie, the price per edible gram, and the price per average portion.  Most studies use the price-per-calorie measure. “And when prices are computed that way, sure enough, items like broccoli do end up being more expensive than the likes of maple-glazed donuts,” Los Angeles Times reporter Rosie Mestel wrote.

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    So let’s look at the other two ways that the researchers used to calculate food prices “Price per edible weight is the price of the food after it is cooked, and the seeds, peels, skins, shells, and bones have been removed,” the study’s lead researcher Andrea Carlson wrote on the USDA blog. “Price per average amount is the price of the average amount consumed by adults who reported their food consumption in a national survey.”

    To calculate these prices, the researchers assigned more than 4,430 foods to one of five USDA food groups – grains, dairy, fruit, vegetables or protein. They also assigned the foods to a category for mixed dishes, such as spaghetti and tomato sauce, as well to categories based on whether the foods were healthy or less healthy. “To make it into a healthy food group, a food had to contain specific minimums of at least one of the USDA food groups and had to fall below a maximum amount of saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium,” Carlson stated. “Less healthy foods were defined as those high in sodium, added sugars or saturated fats, or containing little or no amount of USDA’s food groups. Less healthy foods included items such as many canned and dry soups, fruit-flavored yogurt, and sodas.”

    The researchers’ analysis did find that the method used to calculate the price of food items made a difference on which foods were more expensive. Their findings were:

    • Foods that are low in calories for a given weight seem to have a higher price when the price is measured per calorie. The researchers found that using this metric, low-calorie vegetables and fruits often are relatively expensive.
    • Less healthy foods that often are high in saturated fat and additional sugar also often are high in calories. These foods also have a low price per calorie.
    • However, when foods are analyzed based on cost per edible weight or cost per average portion size, several healthier foods – vegetables, grains, fruit and dairy foods – are actually less expensive than most proteins. These foods also are cheaper than foods that are high in saturated fat, additional sugars and/or sodium.
    • The researchers also analyzed the foods based on the recommendations of They determined that it is less costly to consume the recommended amount of grains, dairy and fruit than the recommended amounts of vegetables and protein.

    Explaining the study’s overall findings, Carlson stated, “We found that the price measure used has a large effect on which foods are more expensive.  If we use price per calorie, fruits and vegetables tend to be more expensive than less healthy foods. In contrast, 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.”

  • So basically, the costliness of different foods depends on the mathematical formula you use to calculate the price.  The bottom line is that it still comes down to where you want to spend your hard-earned dollars. Yes, it’s easy to purchase a burger and fries from the fast food restaurant or to pick up the prepackaged foods in the grocery store, but if you eat those regularly, there’s a strong possibility that you will be putting your own health at risk at some point down the line. And poor health comes at a huge cost. So my perspective is that it doesn't matter matter which formula you use to calculate food costs. Instead, purchasing decisions need to come down to the ultimate cost/benefit ratio: the fact that healthy foods play a big part in keeping us healthy and that good health is priceless!

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

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    U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. (2012). Report summary.

    Carlson, A. (2012). Healthy foods not necessarily more expensive than less healthy ones. U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Published On: May 17, 2012