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Getting Nutritional Bang for Your Buck

Ylan Mui

I still have food on the brain after my post a few weeks ago about the doughnut bacon burger, the ultimate in recessionary comfort food. We've heard a lot about the impact of a recession diet -- folks trading down to cheaper cuts of meat and buying more "food extenders" like Hamburger Helper. But do we lose valuable nutrients when we try to save money at the grocery store?

Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington, said many shoppers are tempted to buy inexpensive processed foods during tough economic times. But, he argues, many of those products provide little nutritional value. Shoppers may save money, but their health may suffer.

Drewnowski figured he could help cash-strapped consumers by figuring out which foods packed the most nutritional punch for the least amount of money. He started by scoring foods based on the amount of nutrients they contain. Then he calculated the prices of 4,000 foods using data from the USDA and local supermarkets. That allowed him to figure out the amount of nutrients per dollar of edible portion.

What he found was both old-school and radical at the same time. The most nutrient-rich foods that were also wallet-friendly included: eggs, milk, beans, lean ground beef, potatoes and soup. He acknowledged that many of these are already staples of our diets, but they may have fallen out of favor. Eggs were eschewed due to cholesterol, potatoes became a verboten carb and soup was maligned for its sodium content.

“They kind of lost their glamour in intervening years as we went after acai berries and pomegranate,” Drewnowski said.

But often overlooked is the nutritional wallop that such foods do have -- especially for the price. A complete shopping list is available at The main lesson, Drewnowski said, is not to be lured into buying a bargain without checking the label first.

“Don’t just grab a pack of something because it says 79 cents,” he said.

Tell us your tips for healthful eating on a budget in the comments below or via e-mail. Are there other ways the recession has changed the foods you eat?

By Ylan Mui  |  June 29, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Meals & Food , Ylan Q. Mui  
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Next: Part 2: Big on Taste, Easy on Your Wallet


The way I see it, there are three considerations: nutrition, money, and time. The kicker is, you can only get two. So if money is your constraint, and you want healthful food, you have to invest some extra time.

The search for nutritious, processed, cheap foods is inherently quixotic, because the very act of processing ups the cost (and also frequently decreases the nutrition). Processing isn't free; when someone does something to your food, they're going to want to get paid for it. And the more layers of processing (i.e., wheat to flour to pie crust to pie), the more people there are to pay. Conversely, the more you're willing to substitute your own "processing" labor for the manufacturer's, the less you pay someone else to do it.

The other good way to maximize nutrition and minimize cost is to stop wasting the odds and ends that are frequently left over. Which is truly a lost art -- and yet, is also the source of some of the world's best foods (where do you think ravioli came from?). Which is also why soup rocks -- you can take stuff that would just be thrown away (bones, odd vegetable bits), stretch it with a little pasta or rice, and suddenly you have a whole new meal that doesn't feel like deprivation. One tip: throw those odds and ends in the freezer; that way, you can wait until you have enough to make a really good pot.

Posted by: laura33 | June 29, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

As the Director of Nutrition and Food Safety Education at the Egg Nutrition Center, I’m so pleased to see you and Dr. Drewnowski highlight eggs as an affordable and nutrient-rich food. It’s unfortunate that the egg and cholesterol myth continues to overshadow what the science says. More than 30 years of research have concluded that healthy adults can enjoy eggs without significantly impacting their risk of heart disease so it’s o.k. to enjoy an egg or two a day, especially if individuals opt for other low-cholesterol foods throughout the day. Eggs remain a very inexpensive healthy wholesome food.

Posted by: RDnut | July 2, 2009 12:28 PM | Report abuse

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