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Junk food cheaper than healthful

This post was updated Aug. 17 at 4:50 p.m.

Why are we fat?

Here's one reason: It's a lot cheaper to buy junk food than to load your grocery cart with the good stuff.

University of Washington researcher Adam Drewnowski and colleagues have published a study showing that, in Washington state, at least, "nutrient-dense" foods -- those that pack the most nutrients for the fewest calories -- are far more expensive than those that are full of calories but offer little nutritional value. And it's getting worse by the year: While prices for foods at the low end of the nutrient-density scale rose by 16 percent between 2004 and 2008, he found, prices for those at the high end rose by 29 percent.

Obviously that discrepancy poses a huge disincentive to eating more healthfully. Drewnowski has been campaigning to incorporate into the Dietary Guidelines for Americans guidance -- as to how to follow those guidelines without breaking the bank. The updated version of the guidelines is due in December.

Meantime, Drewnowski keeps beating the drum, reminding consumers that healthful choices can be had for cheap. Milk, beans, eggs, potatoes and frozen vegetables are all economical choices.

But Drewnowski doesn't think junk food should necessarily be priced out of the market. In fact, he's among the nutrition experts in this country who don't favor a soda tax. When I interviewed him on the matter last summer, he argued that to tax soda would be to impose an unfair burden on people for whom a soda may be a much-needed treat at the end of a hard day's work.

Do you notice that your grocery bill's enormous when you choose good-for-you foods? Chime in with your comments and complaints!

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  August 16, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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Comments

Drewnowski your remark is stupid, snobbish and arrogant. In fact it is just one reason why educated, middle class people should not presume to tell the lower class how to eat.
You are treating this class as though you were studying chimpanzees in the jungle. Only with not as much respect as you would show the apes.
For some poor people the only thing they have to look forward to at the end of a long day's work is a glass of soda?
OMG!

Posted by: leslieswearingen | August 16, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

I recommend "The End of Overeating" by David Kessler, former head of the FDA. Libraries have it so you don't need to buy it. The sellers of processed food go to lengths you would not believe to take advantage of our genetic predilection for fat and sugar. Nabisco, Frito-Lay and your local chain restaurant are no better than cigarette companies. You'll be glad you read Dr. Kessler's book. I sure was.

Posted by: chug760 | August 16, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

leslieswearingen, Drewnowski isn't in favor of a soda tax, so he isn't trying to make this a class issue. If you change the rules to the way they used to be, high-fructose corn syrup would be too expensive to use, and there would be fewer products with sweetener in them. HFCS is used in unusual places (e.g., sandwich bread) because it's a cheap filler and companies' ethics aren't as strong as they should be.

Posted by: foodwriter67 | August 16, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

leslieswearingen, Drewnowski isn't in favor of a soda tax, so he isn't trying to make this a class issue. If you change the rules to the way they used to be, high-fructose corn syrup would be too expensive to use, and there would be fewer products with sweetener in them. HFCS is used in unusual places (e.g., sandwich bread) because it's a cheap filler and companies' ethics aren't as strong as they should be.

Posted by: foodwriter67 | August 16, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

milk and eggs are not healthy foods.
ok, got that off my chest. otherwise, it is true that no veggies can top the cheapness and convenience of a bag of chips or a fast food burger. healthy foods can be cheap (ie. dry beans and rice, frozen vegetables), but they all have to be prepared, and it's hard for a lot of people (most people?) to find the time to do a lot of cooking. i have no idea what the solution is...besides overhauling our farm subsidies so that unhealthy stuff becomes more expensive (or rather, returns to its proper price) and healthy foods become cheaper.

Posted by: anniesang | August 16, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Color me sceptical.

I want more details. Specifically, two shopping lists (junk food and healthy food), for the same number of people and time period. Then price both lists at the same supermarket on the same day (with the same sale prices).

I am a single man with type 2 diabetes and a paralyzed right arm. I shop at Giant once a week. I generally shop the periphery of the store -- fresh produce, meat and dairy plus selected bakery and deli items -- with occasional forays down the aisles in the middle of the store.

I take advantage of sale items (including splitting large packages of meat and freezing what I can't use right away). I know how fast I use food, buy accordingly, and usually finish fresh food before it goes bad. I use prepared food in the deli to avoid prep work that is difficult for me. I watch my portion sizes when I eat (one deli sandwich usually makes 3, sometimes 4, meals).

My weekly food bill is under $50 a week.

How would "junk food" save me money?

Posted by: rlguenther | August 16, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Maybe in the short run it's cheaper to buy junk food. But it will cost you later on. I always have a clean bill of health when I get a doctor's checkup. I don't pay for other medications and other doctor's bills because I very rarely get sick. I don't have health issues that make me lose productivity. Etc....

Posted by: jiji1 | August 16, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

It would be possible to deliver refrigerated supply units with compartments like apartment mail box units to apartment complexes by 4pm each day with healthy meal ingredients tailored to personal tastes and household size.

Possibly Turkey Tetrazini with Greek Salad on Monday, Veal Parmasan with Seasoned Green Beans on Tuesday, Tacos on Wednesday, Kung Po Chicken on Thursday, Cod and Seasoned Potatoes and Beet Salad on Friday, ...

You could access your household meal ingredients by swiping a card.

A health insurer could issue credits for healthy eating that would largely offset the cost of better food.

Posted by: brian308griffin | August 16, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

My pet peeve is the perpetual advice to "shop farmers' markets to save on produce." I don't know where these people shop, but the produce at my local farmer's market is more expensive than the locally grown produce at my nearby grocery store. And we haven't had exactly a good year for growing here. Too much rain and too cool, followed by too hot too quickly. It's difficult to eat locally when the weather has wreaked havoc on the local farmers.

Posted by: abbyandmollycats | August 16, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

America is the fattest nation on earth with the highest obesity and diabetes rates. Mexico comes in as the second fattest nation on earth. They gulp down almost as many sodas as we do - loaded with High Fructose Corn Syrup.

Animal studies demonstrate that phosphorus, a common ingredient in soda, can deplete bones of calcium. And two recent human studies suggest that girls who drink more soda are more prone to broken bones.

We can pay now or we can pay later.

Posted by: alance | August 16, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Hmmn... Milk, beans, eggs, potatoes and frozen vegetables

or

2/3 lb Angus combo meal

What to choose, what to choose...

:-)

Posted by: schafer-family | August 16, 2010 5:34 PM | Report abuse

I live in the Upper Midwest, so all I have to say to this is "duh".

The meat section of my grocery store I refer to as the "Mile of Beef" - there isn't a cut or style of beef you can't find. The poultry section, by comparison, is quite small and there are rarely sales on any form of skinless chicken. The only type of affordable seafood is either canned tuna or prepackaged fried/crusted fish.

However, if I want Macaroni and cheese or the makings for cheese curds or a dizzying array of chips? No problem.

The only time you can get good produce is during our shorter growing season when our Farmer's Markets are abundant and the world's biggest bargain. But in the depths of winter, you're weeping for good vegetables - I wouldn't mind paying the exorbitantly expensive rates if it meant the produce wasn't going to rot on the way home from the store...

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | August 16, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

I've lived all over the USA, and now abroad, and one thing that stunned me on my last visit back to the USA was what a small percentage of the stuff in the supermarket was actually food [as opposed to high calorie low nutrient density snacks]. Even along the periphery. But, it just makes good business sense: fresh food has a relatively low profit margin compared to junk food, and it also has a much shorter shelf life.

Another observation: when we left, my husband had high blood pressure controlled with medication. Within 6 months of living here [China], he started to feel dizzy -- turned out that his blood pressure had self-corrected and the dizziness was from having too low blood pressure. Now he's off the meds altogether.

Anecdotes aren't data, of course, but I do hear many anecdotes of this type amongst the expat crowd....

Posted by: smugexpat | August 17, 2010 7:28 AM | Report abuse

It really should be pointed out that in the "good old days" there weren't ANY fresh fruits and vegetables from November to May except maybe in Florida and California. You had potatoes, turnips, and maybe dried apples.

The rest of the year you had what could be produced within 50 miles of your home, which because of local growing conditions amounted in variety to maybe 20% of what you can find in the produce department year round at any grocery store.

The reason these items cost more is because refrigerated transportation is expensive. Plus you can't buy 20 tons of something when it's cheap and expect to be able to sell it even one month later. Which you can do of course with grains and sugar.

Posted by: corco02az | August 17, 2010 7:34 AM | Report abuse

I'd like to hear the why. Why does processed, high calorie food cost less than high nutrient food? From my experience shopping, I think I can guess, but I shouldn't be guessing when reading an article like this.

Here's my guess: storage. It is easy to preserve a bottle of soda or a box of macaroni for a long time. That helps even out the peaks and valleys of weather, shipping costs, and fickle demand. High nutrition food - mostly fresh stuff - doesn't last long before it spoils. Once it spoils, whoever has it has to spend money to get rid of it. That cost is passed onto the consumer next time. To make things worse, in order to get variety in fresh foods we import them from 1000's of miles away, again with very high spoilage rates. Expen$ive.

The one area where I see a glimmer of hope is frozen foods. That stuff keeps and is generally cheap. I'd be curious to compare nutritional value vs fresh and vs high calorie foods.

Final comment - I generally find farmer's market prices to be higher than the grocery store produce. Since my grocery stores sell local produce, I don't see the point in trying to make special trips to the farmer's market.

Posted by: will4567 | August 17, 2010 7:43 AM | Report abuse

One thing to remember is that in the last 40 years food costs in general have gone way down in the US. Food is a much smaller proportion of the general household budget than it used to be. Remember "a chicken in every pot?" Having a whole chicken used to be a fairly expensive treat. Now you can get a whole rotisserie chicken for $5. So I think we've become spoiled by this and we complain when our grocery bill actually starts to infringe on all the fun stuff we want to buy. Also, we eat out way more than we used to, and that takes a lot of money away from our grocery budget. I think we just need to suck it up and accept that eating healthy means being willing to make some sacrifices in the more frivolous parts of our budget. Obviously, I'm speaking to middle class people here. People with a low income don't necessarily have frivolities in their budget, and they're in a bind. When whole wheat bread is $3 and white is $1, and your budget is truly limited, it makes sense to go for the white.

Posted by: crazycatlady | August 17, 2010 7:51 AM | Report abuse

I actually thought that produce was one of the highest margins for grocery stores. Maybe I'm wrong, but I read somewhere a few months ago that that's one of the main reasons grocery stores place produce right by the entrance to the store. Is anyone knowledgeable about this?

I definitely think that buying junk food is cheaper than buying wholesome healthy fresh food. Junk food products are also often on sale -- e.g., buy one get one free. When's the last time you saw a vegetable discounted by 50%? A box of Kraft macaroni and cheese often costs less than a dollar -- that can be a meal for an adult and a couple of kids. What other semblance of a meal could be made from healthful foods for less than a dollar? None that I can think of. On Fridays, Giant sells rotisserie chickens for $5, which serves as the base for a great under $10 meal for a family of four (guess what we have every Friday?). But there aren't a lot of other "healthy options" that are convenient when you're dashing home after work.

I strongly believe that for most people, food choices are often about convenience. I like to think I try to be a healthful eater, but certainly admit that it is easier to grab a box of Triscuit on the go than to have an apple (since you have to discard the core). If I'm at home, it's easy to eat a healthier meal or snack, but if I'm on the go, it's far more difficult. So junk food has it's place in my life, often because it's convenient (and tasty, too).

And if we look at the value menu at McDonald's or any other fast-food place, everything for $1 is very unhealthy. When I travel for business, it's catch-as-catch can. Until we have better options for "fast-food" or "convenience" options across this country, it will continue to be a struggle to eat healthy when not in your own home, even when you choose to pay higher prices for fresh and healthy food.

Posted by: JenDC | August 17, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

anniesang said:
ok, got that off my chest. otherwise, it is true that no veggies can top the cheapness and convenience of a bag of chips or a fast food burger. healthy foods can be cheap (ie. dry beans and rice, frozen vegetables), but they all have to be prepared, and it's hard for a lot of people (most people?) to find the time to do a lot of cooking.

That is a load of crap. It really doesn't take that long to prepare a good, healthy meal. Longer than getting a burger at McDonalds? Sure, but anyone can do a quick stirfry with about 15-20 minutes prep time. The problem is that we always think that there is "no time" to do anything. But, if you cut out, or cut back, your TV time you may find alot of time for other things. I work full time and have an infant son, so I do know how difficult it can get to fit it all in. But, where there is a will there is a way. People need to stop making excuses, get off the couch and do something!

Posted by: thought4 | August 17, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

@thought14-
people definitely need to prioritize health. i wasn't saying that "there's no time to prepare healthy foods" is a legitimate excuse to eat poorly (because, as you say, most people seem to have plenty of time to watch television etc.) but rather that that is the excuse most people use. perhaps people who have never learned to cook feel that there's no way they could ever find the time to cook. i cook a ton, and i will say that it does take up a lot of time. but for me, good food is a priority and worth spending time to make. i realize, however, that for whatever reasons, most americans seem to make a different calculation when it comes to the use of their time. i think it's a shame, and it shows in our health. also, there is a tremendous amount of ignorance about what "healthy eating" actually means... i am frequently stunned by some of the things my coworkers believe about food and nutrition, and they are often equally stunned to find out some of the things they have always believed about food are wrong (even to the point of not thinking a mcdonalds hamburger was unhealthy).

Posted by: anniesang | August 17, 2010 7:04 PM | Report abuse

It is important to read Drewnowski's work and see why he arrives at his results. Click on the link, the abstract is very informative.

He measures prices in terms of dollars per 1000 calories - ask yourself the following, do you go to your butcher/fish monger/deli person and say, "My that looks good, I would like 5,000 calories of that". I buy in normal weight standards and I suspect that you do too.

While the rest of the world thinks of prices in dollars per pound or euros per 100 grams, Drewnowski thinks of price per calorie. When you convert his results into normal weight standards, all of his amazing results go away.

Posted by: nidomhnail | August 22, 2010 8:08 PM | Report abuse

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