How To Make Healthy Eating Easier On The Wallet? Change The Calculation

May 17, 2012
Originally published on March 24, 2014 7:56 pm

If you're already a kale and lentils kind of person (we know there are a lot of frugal foodies out there) — you won't be surprised by this finding: According to a new study from some economists at the USDA, eating a healthy diet isn't necessarily more expensive than a diet loaded with sugar and fat. In fact, fruits and vegetables are often cheaper when you calculate the cost in a smarter way.

Cost is often cited as a barrier to eating well. But USDA's Andrea Carlson and her colleagues analyzed the cost of more than 4,000 foods using three different measures: Price per calorie (or food energy), price by weight, and price per average amount consumed.

By using this last measure — which is a good proxy of what actually makes it onto our plate — the news is good.

"We find that fruits and vegetables — especially vegetables — come out much less expensive than the less-healthy food such as potato chips, ready-to-eat cereals [which are] often high in sugar, [and] anything with a lot of fat like cookies and pies." That's because you get more bang — like vitamins and minerals — for the buck.

So how do you do it?

Well, for starters, when you're trying to get the most nutritional and economical benefit in the protein category, think legumes. Lentils and beans are very affordable, and a good alternative to meat.

Also, check sugar labels. For the purposes of this study, lots of foods people may think are healthful actually ended up in the "less-healthful" category because of added sugars. Think yogurts sweetened with jam, sugary cereals and granola bars.

And for veggies: Shop the frozen food aisle. You don't have to consume an entire package in a single use (frozen peas will last weeks). And frozen veggies are just about as nutritious as fresh — with a lot less work on your part.

For the full USDA report, click here.

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OK. That's what's on TV. What's for dinner? When we're deciding what to eat, many of us have this impression that healthier foods are often more expensive. Well, a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has analyzed the costs of several thousand healthy and unhealthy foods. And their conclusions could come as a surprise. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Lots of us don't think twice about reaching into our pocketbooks every morning for the few bucks it takes to sustain a morning coffee habit. But when we get into the grocery store and see asparagus at $3 a pound or a huge bag of spinach for $4, we think, ah, the cost of produce is really high. Robert Williams is familiar with this thinking.

ROBERT WILLIAMS: Exactly, I would definitely agree that I will spend 6 bucks on a latte, but the produce, too expensive.


AUBREY: Williams is single and 20-something, and he says in the grocery store, he gravitates towards what he thinks are the best deals.

WILLIAMS: Like for me, I'm trying to race up and down here before a big crowd gets in here. I'm just grabbing stuff. And again, like I said, the most, the cheapest thing was the thing that jumps out at me, if anything.

AUBREY: Williams has no fresh produce in his cart except for bananas, and he, like many of us, assumes that lots of fruits and vegetables will break the bank.

But economist Andrea Carlson, who is one of the authors of the new report, says this is not necessarily the case. She analyzed the costs of some 4,000 different items, in different ways. Not just in terms of individual package price or price per calorie, but how that translates into what ends up on your plate. She compared the costs of sugary and fat-laden items that Americans routinely eat with the costs of healthier foods, and the results were clear.

ANDREA CARLSON: We find that fruits and vegetables, especially vegetables, come out much less expensive than the less healthy food such as potato chips, a lot of the ready-to-eat cereals or anything that has a lot of fat in it - cookies and pies.

AUBREY: A lot of you are probably skeptical. But, let's see how this plays out with our shopper Robert Williams. We'll take two examples.

And for a little help with we've brought in Laura Seman. She a nutrition educator with the group Share Our Strength. She helps direct a program called Cooking Matters that teaches people how to shop for both value and good nutrition.

LAURA SEMAN: It's complicated.

AUBREY: She catches up with Robert and takes a quick look in his cart...which makes him a little nervous.

WILLIAMS: I live by myself and I don't cook a lot, so...


AUBREY: But she has tips on how to get good deals on healthy food. Now the economists' study found that some of the most affordable sources of protein tend to be legumes, such as lentils and black beans. But lean meat can be a good option too, if you know what to look for.

SEMAN: So I just want to ask you a question. We have here have two different types of ground turkey.

We have ground turkey that's 93 percent lean.

AUBREY: One costs $4.50 per package. And right next to it, a more expensive option, six bucks for 99 percent lean turkey.

SEMAN: So, if you were to buy one of these, which one would you buy?

WILLIAMS: The five dollar one.

SEMAN: Why is that?

WILLIAMS: Just most likely the price itself. I'd just grab that one just to save a buck or two.

AUBREY: But wait a second. The cheaper one is fattier, it's going to shrink down when you cook it.

SEMAN: Have you ever seen that happen?

WILLIAMS: Oh yeah.

SEMAN: Yeah. So your meat shrinks down, whereas, and when you take this meat and you cook it in the skillet, it's not going to shrink down as much, right, because you're not melting that fat away.

AUBREY: So by buying the fattier grade, you're really not saving anything at all.

WILLIAMS: Never thought about it that way, really never thought about it that way, but yeah, good point there.

AUBREY: The next example takes us to the produce aisle.

SEMAN: We're standing in front of all of the bagged lettuces.

AUBREY: Picking up a big $4 bag of greens, Semen says think how many servings you can get out of this.

SEMAN: A portion of lettuce is about a couple of cups.

AUBREY: Eat that much and the bag's not even a third of the way gone. But you've consumed lots of vitamins and nutrients.

SEMAN: When you look at it that way, then actually, lettuce becomes a lot more affordable.

AUBREY: Currently the typical American spends only one-fifth of their food budget on fresh fruits and vegetables, compared to the 40 percent that's recommended. What this report shows is that with some strategic shopping, it's possible to get a healthier cart without spending any more money.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.