Study: Healthy food affordable

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 19, 2012

Joyce Sorrells of Gantt tests the firmness of the tomato selection at Wingard’s Farmers Market Thursday.

The excuses for not eating healthily are easy – I’m too busy. I don’t live near a grocery store. I can’t afford healthy food. I don’t know how to cook.

A new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service is taking one of those excuses off the table.

Previous studies have shown that eating junk food is cheaper than eating healthy food, but Andrea Carlson, lead author for the USDA study, said the way those researchers measured cost-effectiveness skewed the results.

Carlson and her team analyzed 4,439 foods in three different ways – price per calories (as previous studies had done), price per edible gram and price per average portion. Retail prices were based on Nielsen Homescan data. The average portion was determined from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The researchers found that when they used the price per calories analysis, fruits and vegetables appeared more expensive. “But this changes when you use other two,” Carlson said Wednesday.

“For instance, take a chocolate-glazed donut,” she said. “Each donut is probably about 240 calories, and you could probably eat two or three of them with no problem and just a teensy bit of guilt,” she said.

“Then take a banana with about 105 calories,” she said. “If these two cost the same, the banana is more expensive per each calorie eaten. But you’ll probably only eat one and feel a lot fuller afterward. That makes it cheaper per edible gram and per the average portion.”

None of that came as a surprise to Joyce Sorrells of Gantt who was shopping Thursday at Wingard’s Farmers Market on River Falls.

“I love the freshness of healthy food,” Sorrels said. “Tomatoes, onions, squash – it’s all so good. We try to eat healthy and not eat a lot of junk food. Junk food is expensive. Why do that when you can get fresh strawberries right here?”

At Wingard’s, fresh corn is offered at 45-cents an ear; squash, $1 per pound, and tomatoes, $1.25 per pound. All three are items grown at the family farm located in the northern part of the county.

“All you need is a tomato, a loaf of bread and some mayonnaise, and you’ve got a meal,” Sorrells said. “You’ve spent next to nothing, and with lots of mayo, it may not be the healthiest thing, but there’s nothing better tasting in the world.

Kevin Concannon, the USDA under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said the study shows that carrots, onions, pinto beans and mashed potatoes are all less expensive per portion than ice cream, sweet rolls, pork chops and ground beef. In fact, protein foods and food high in saturated fat, added sugars and sodium were all more expensive than fruits, vegetables, dairy and grains based on these methods.

“This is great news for all getting by with a limited food budget,” he said. “You don’t have to compromise good nutrition.”

The bottom line, Carlson said, is that there is a range of prices for any type of food you buy. You can find expensive produce and inexpensive produce, as well as expensive and inexpensive junk food.

And while cost is a common excuse offered for not eating nutritionally, it’s not the only barrier. Food deserts make it difficult for some in the U.S. to access fresh produce, and others just don’t want to make the effort.

“Taste always is the first thing people consider when choosing food,” Carlson said.

The USDA offers tips for consumers on how to eat healthy on a budget. For meal plans and more, visit