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Junk-Food Soundbite: Nutritious Food is NOT More Expensive

"Healthy Eating is the Privilege of the Rich" says ABC News. "Healthy Eating Costs Much More in America," says Medical News Today.

That's the clear takeaway from the abstract for Following Federal Guidelines to Increase Nutirient Consumption May Lead to Higher Food Costs for Consumers by Pablo Monsivais, Anju Aggarwal, and Adam Drewnowski of the University of Washington in this month's Health Affairs Journal:

We found that increasing consumption of potassium—the most expensive of the four recommended nutrients—would add $380 per year to the average consumer’s food costs.

Reports like this make me mad. The abstract, well publicized and freely available, could lead you to think that eating healthy is so hard and expensive that it's not worth trying. You might think that the USDA's new MyPlate can't be your plate. Just give up and grab the chips. But you can get potassium from inexpensive, nutritious food like bananas, beans, and baked potatoes.

The Wall Street Journal tones the FUD down a little by using "may" in its headline "Following New Food Guidelines May Cost More," but the message is clear:

An update of what used to be known as a food pyramid in 2010 had called on Americans to eat more foods containing potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin D and calcium. But if they did that, the study authors said, they would add hundreds more dollars to their annual grocery bill.

Inexpensive ways to add these nutrients to a person's diet include potatoes and beans for potassium and dietary fiber. But the study found introducing more potassium in a diet is likely to add $380 per year to the average consumer's food costs, said lead researcher Pablo Monsivais, an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and the School of Public Health at the University of Washington.

But Healthy Food, Even Organic Food, is Wildly Affordable

But if you pay the $12.95 that Health Affairs asks and read the whole study, you'll find the researchers left out water as a beverage, counted only one nutrient per food, and looked at what people say they buy, not of the cost of what they could buy.

The study shows that the existing habits of their survey group are expensive. They then calculated how to improve the diet by eating more nutrients using the same patterns. Surprise: it cost more.  If they'd used the Wildly Affordable Organic approach, improving the diet would have cost less.

It's like assuming that people who drive a Cadillac CTS station wagon only to church and back every week at 12 MPG wouldn't switch to a Chevy Volt if they suddenly took on a lengthy commute.

Adam Drewnowski and his team at the University of Washington do study after study to show that healthy food is too expensive. Statements like this are part of what led me to start the Cook for Good project:

If you have $3 to feed yourself, your choices gravitate toward foods which give you the most calories per dollar. Vegetables and fruits are rapidly becoming luxury goods.

Healthy eating may be the habit of the rich, but it's a lifestyle available to nearly everyone.

Reading the whole study shows problems

  • The study only shows that people who already pay more for food get more nutrients and less sugar and fat.
  • It then calculates improvements based on existing dietary habits. To get more nutrients, participants would just eat more of what they already eat, so they would pay more. For example, if you currently get your potassium from expensive nectarines instead of thrifty bananas, then the projected costs were based on buying even more nectarines.
  • Costs don't reflect what the participants actually paid for the food, but retail prices gathered by the researchers when the studies were done. So the participants may have bought those nectarines in season, on sale, in bulk, and at a farmers' market ... all factors that can drive prices down.
  • The costs of eating more healthy food is shown, but not the savings from eating less unhealthy food. But if you eat an extra banana and half a cup of beans a day, you will eat fewer Pop-Tarts and Gummi Bears.
  • The costs for each nutrient were calculated separately. So even though bananas provide potassium, fiber, and calcium, the cost was allocated to only one nutrient.

´╗┐How to SAVE money with a healthy diet.

The researchers do say:

Selecting foods that are good sources of multiple nutrients might be one way for consumers to improve overall nutrient intakes with the smallest impact on food budgets.

Yes, indeed! Look at the percentage of your recommended daily value for other nutrients you'd get by eating pinto beans or bananas to get 700 mg of potassium.

Protein is on the  chart above, although it's not in the paper, to show that you could get 25% of your daily protein and your potassium by eating just under a cup of pinto beans a day. Having beans instead of expensive, fatty meat helps your budget, your health, and your waist line.

Vitamin D is not shown because you won't get any from bananas, beans, or foods that aren't fortifided. But you can get Vitamin D for free (yes, free) from the sun.

Drink water to save money & reduce sugar and additives in your diet

The study says:

Meanwhile, each time consumers obtained 1 percent more of their daily calories from saturated fat and added sugar, their food costs significantly declined.

But it also says:

Our analyses included all food and beverages consumed, except drinking water.

My grocery bills plummeted when I switched from bottled drinks to tap water.

You can afford healthy, fabulous food

The study divided people into three groups spending an average of $6.77, $8.58, and $11.54 a day on food. All of those averages are higher than the Wildly Affordable Organic plans, which averaged $5.00 a day for the green plan and a mere $3.21 a day for the thrifty plan in 2010. The Cook for Good Summer Challenge averaged $5 a day for the green plan just last month, showing that even as some food costs rise, good choices can keep your health up and your grocery bills down.


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