Why are healthy foods expensive?

In our society, healthy choices are sometimes a lot harder to make than unhealthy ones: going to the gym vs. staying home, ordering a salad vs. french fries or buying healthy groceries vs. unhealthy ones. Healthy groceries such as fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats and 100% whole wheat products always seem to be more expensive than their unhealthy counterparts. The reasons are are simple but the solutions, complex.

How to Measure Cost of Food

Part of the problem with healthy foods being so "expensive" is the definition of price. The most popular way to measure cost is to compare price to portion (i.e., volume or calorie content). The result is Big Macs or sodas cost "much less" than fruits and vegetables. Comparing the cost of food using the price/calorie ratio ignores healthier food options are generally lower in calories and higher in nutrients.

Healthy foods are higher in nutrients and satisfy you for a much longer period of time. A better way to measure the price of food is to look at price/nutrient or price/satiety ratios. If you look at these comparisons, the price is not so different. Let us take a look at the following example.

A can of soda and an apple have roughly the same number of calories (~120). While a large apple costs about $1, a can of soda sells for $0.50 to $0.75 (even less if you buy a larger quantity). If you compare these two using the price/calorie ratio, the can of soda looks cheaper. Unfortunately, the can of soda has no nutrients. An apple is loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. If you look at the price/nutrient ratio, the apple is much cheaper.

Furthermore, because an apple contains a large amount of fiber, it keeps you full for a longer period of time than a can of soda. If you look at the price/satiety ratio, the apple wins again. Though a soda costs half as much as an apple, it does not come close to providing you with even half the benefits.

The soda does not contribute anything to your overall health nor does it do anything to keep you full. How many cans of soda do you need to keep you as full as one apple? If the answer is more than two, the apple becomes cheaper. The price of unhealthy foods might be absolutely more expensive but healthy foods are relatively cheaper. Now let us look at some of the reasons why the absolute cost of healthy food is higher.

Demand vs. Supply

Simple economics is the main reason healthy food is expensive (supply and demand). This country demands much more unhealthy food (red meat, sugar, high fructose corn syrup) than it does healthy (fresh produce, seafood, whole grains). Food manufacturers supply what is in demand. The result is cheap junk. The way to change this is to change the supply and demand equation which cannot happen overnight. Only changing attitudes can move this process along.

Ways to Save

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to save on healthy foods. First, buy your fruits and vegetables in season. The supply of in season produce is very high and very perishable. This means prices are low. The USDA has a comprehensive guide on what's plentiful during each season. A few examples include:

  • winter: bananas, grapefruit, potatoes
  • spring: apricots, broccoli, cabbage
  • summer: blueberries, cherries, corn
  • fall: apples, carrots, cranberries

Another way to save on produce is to buy frozen rather than fresh. While canning adds preservatives, freezing avoids most additives. Frozen products allow you to buy in or out of season produce at much lower prices. A lot of the generic grocery shopping rules also apply to healthy foods:

  • Buy non-perishable items in bulk whenever possible (including sales on items you frequently use).
  • Use coupons only for items you would normally buy.
  • Buy store brands over national ones.
  • Find a local farmers market for fresh produce.

The Bottom Line

While buying healthy food might seem like the more expensive option, in the long run, going healthy saves you a lot of time and money. Ingredients found in some of our most popular foods (sugar, sodium saturated fat, trans fat) are known to increase your risk for a number of diseases including heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. There are also other ingredients (fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants) found in healthy foods that can prevent those same diseases. Instead of worrying about the damage healthy food does to your wallet, worry about the damage unhealthy food does to your body.