by Marion Nestle
Aug 5 2011

Does it really cost more to buy healthy food?

I got several calls this week about a new study from the University of Washington arguing that because of the way foods are subsidized, it will cost everyone nearly $400 a year to follow the recommendations of the government’s MyPlate food guide

The Seattle group calculates the cost of food per calorie.  By this measure, the price of fruits and vegetables is exceedingly high compared to the cost of junk food.  Fruits and vegetables do not have many calories for their weight.

The Commerce department tracks the indexed price of foods.  Its data show that the indexed price of fresh produce increased by 40% ince 1980 whereas the price of sodas and processed foods has declined by 10-30%.  (The easiest place to see their charts is in New York Times articles from a couple of years ago.  Click here and also here).

USDA economists have produced a similar chart:

 

Other USDA economists, however, argue that price trends for fruits, vegetables, and junk foods are really no different, and that the data shown in the figure overstate the apparent difference.

Nevertheless, the Seattle paper got a lot of attention, and rightly so.  One of my calls was from David Freeman of CBS News who said he was hearing lots of complaints that the study promoted a “nanny state” because it blamed bad eating habits on the government.  My quotes:

“It’s a common misconception that food choices are solely a matter of personal responsibility,” Dr. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and an outspoken critic of the fast food industry, told CBS News. “People are hugely influenced by the price of food. If you don’t have any money and go into the store to buy some fresh fruits, you might decide that it’s cheaper to have a couple of fast food hamburgers.”

And those who can afford healthy food may lack the time or the necessary food-preparation skills, Dr. Nestle said.

Government-sponsored cooking classes and kitchen equipment may not be in the offing. But Dr. Monsivais and Dr. Nestle agreed that federal agriculture policies could do more to encourage healthy eating. For example, some of the federal farm subsidies now directed to producers of corn, soybeans, and other crops used to make fast and processed foods could be redirected to growers of fruits and vegetables.

“What’s the matter with that?” Dr. Nestle said. “I can’t think of a thing.”

Comments

A latest statistic I saw recently suggested that those that eat “unhealthy” pay on average $1500 per year more on healthcare over their lifetime than those that eat healthy. And that figure will most likely rise with advanced technology and research.

While an added $400 a year to start buying healthier foods is going to be very difficult for some at first, the long term financial benefits alone (and of course health benefits) are there. Education and availability is key – making healthy foods available in the “food deserts” that Kathaleen mentioned in an early post!

  • Dan
  • August 30, 2011
  • 4:17 am

“For example, some of the federal farm subsidies now directed to producers of corn, soybeans, and other crops used to make fast and processed foods could be redirected to growers of fruits and vegetables.

‘What’s the matter with that?” Dr. Nestle said. “I can’t think of a thing.’”

The purpose of the processed food industry is simply to convert an existing cheap commodity food into a tested hedonic (if not reinforcing) experience while filling the consumer’s digestive capacity at maximal profit. Nutrition is, of course, secondary. If subsidies are redirected to a new commodity food source, the processed food industry will simply devise new methodologies to process said food commodity into the same kinds of food products they produce today. Corn syrup simply gets replaced with “apple syrup.” “Tomato seed” lecithin instead of soy lecithin. The processed food industry has no special preference for corn, soy, etc. other than the cheap price at which they are currently available.

Likewise, nothing is inherently unhealthful about eating whole soy or corn. Consumers currently have available to them the whole foods at the the same subsized commodity prices the processed food manufactures do. For example, when I lived in the US, I could readily buy ears of corn at 6-8 for $1. Here, where I currently live (outside of the US), corn production is not subsidized and local corn costs about $1.50-$2/ear. (Of course, one can buy the American corn that floods the market cheaper.)

Thus, I might conclude that the best thing in the long run might be to simply remove all food subsidies, eliminating exploitable distortions in the market all together. Seems to work fairly well for New Zealand (at least until their exports have to compete on the global market against neighbors subsidized food products).

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

  • Leon
  • October 2, 2011
  • 12:35 am

Aren’t calories from junk empty calories? Yes we need energy but what good is that energy if our body can not perform the 1000s of processes that depend on the nutrients? I am a new blogger working hard to grown an audience. Here you can find my article where I analyze the USDA certified organic program. Also and here I talk about the price of being healthy. If you have time please give us a visit. Sincerely, Leon of Organically Thought.

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[...] arefive fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[...] Marion Nestle: Does it Really Cost More to But Healthy Food? http://www.foodpolitics.com/2011/08/doe… [...]

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[...] However, our standards of weight changed over time. Rather than shapely women being considered ideal (they could afford food and had better chances of not dying during childbirth), we now value skinny women. Gilbert and Gubar and Susan Bordo argue that this is part of our culture’s making womanhood and illness, and keeping women sick and childlike. This may be true. But (I think, at least) it also has to do with economics– wealthy people have access to the most healthy food: fruits and veggies are way more expensive than junk food. [...]

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[...] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has [...]

[…] are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has […]

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