Study eliminates at least one excuse not to eat healthy

RICHMOND—A common belief is that healthy food costs more than less-healthy food, but a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service disproves that.

The study found that foods high in saturated fat, with added sugar or sodium, and those that don’t contribute to daily recommendations for nutrients were not less expensive than foods like fresh fruits and vegetables.

“The results are good news for both Virginia consumers and farmers,” said Tony Banks, Virginia Farm Bureau Federation commodity marketing specialist. “This study illustrates that consumers can enjoy fresh, wholesome and nutritious foods and spend less money in the process.”

Carrots, onions, pinto beans, lettuce, mashed potatoes, bananas and orange juice are all cheaper than soft drinks, ice cream, chocolate candy, french fries, sweet rolls and fried chicken patties, the report found.

“We have all heard that eating a healthy diet is expensive, and people have used that as an excuse for not eating a healthy diet,” said Dr. Andrea Carlson, an economist and co-author of the report. “But healthy foods do not necessarily cost more than less-healthy foods.”

For the purposes of the study, healthy foods were defined as products that contain food in at least one of the major food groups equal to at least half the portion size used in dietary guidelines to measure nutrients in that food, and that contain only moderate amounts of saturated fats, added sugars and sodium.

Carlson and colleague Dr. Elizabeth Frazao estimated the cost of more than 4,000 food items based on calories, weight and portion size.

When researchers considered weight and portion size, many healthy foods were not more costly than unhealthy ones; the ranking from least- to most-expensive was grains, dairy, vegetables, fruit, protein and then less-healthy foods.

Grain products such as bread, oatmeal and pasta were found to be the cheapest foods no matter how they were measured. Sources of protein, including meat, chicken and fish, were the most expensive food by portion size, but there are lower-cost protein sources such as beans and eggs.

Previous research has looked at price per calories exclusively and found that healthy foods are more expensive, but Carlson said price per calorie isn’t necessarily a fair measure.

For example, a half cup of broccoli and a 1-ounce bag of potato chips cost about the same. But the broccoli has 27 calories, and the chips have 154 calories. To consume 100 calories of broccoli, someone would have to eat almost 2 cups, which is more than most people normally eat at a sitting.

“Virginia farmers produce many fruits and vegetables that can be enjoyed fresh with little preparation,” Banks said. “A glass of milk or a slice of cheese are nutrient-dense, convenient and affordable as well.”

Contact Banks at 804-290-1114.

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