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Making Good Food Affordable

In Treating Food as an Investment, I note the relationship between reduced food expenditures in the United States over the past several decades and the increasing trend in healthcare spending. There are many reasons underlying this relationship, but among them is the fact that most Americans buy very low quality food, a habit that harms our health on many levels. I'm well aware that many people throughout the US face challenging financial situations, which begs the question: Can we afford to buy higher quality food?

While there are certainly differences in cost between high and low quality foods, I don't think those differences are always as stark as many believe. Part of what drives food price perceptions is that many people think in terms of price per pound of food rather than price per kilocalorie, and its the kilocalories - the food energy - that actually powers our metabolism. The graph below shows the cost per 100 kilocalories for several types of high quality food at my local farmers' market and grocery cooperative, and I include the McDonalds hamburger to offer a sense for the cost of cheap, highly processed food [1].


McDonalds and other fast food companies are well known for producing some of the cheapest calories money can buy in the developed world, so seeing the McDonalds hamburger at the far left shouldn't surprise anyone. Beef liver, perhaps one of the most nutrient dense foods in existence, is darn near as cheap though, and the price used for these calculations is what I pay for high quality grass fed liver, not cheap liver from animals raised in confined feedlots. Calorie dense root vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes are also fairly inexpensive on a per-calorie basis, as are pastured eggs and grass fed ground beef. After these foods we surpass $1 per 100 kilocalories, an arbitrary threshold to be sure but one that certainly drives up the cost of a daily diet. What might surprise many is that common organic vegetables like broccoli, spinach and lettuce, as well as common fruits like applies, oranges and blueberries (which are in season in Vermont right now) are towards the upper end of the price scale, making them comparative luxury items relative to other more nutrient dense foods.

On a per-pound basis meat and eggs tend to cost more than vegetables and fruit, especially high quality grass fed meats and pastured eggs, making people shy away from them. This is unfortunate since the price differential is negated by animal foods' higher calorie density, so that costs per calorie for meat and eggs are usually equal to or lower than that of most fruits and vegetables. High quality animal foods will probably never beat a McDonalds hamburger, but organ meats like liver - which are far more nutritious than pricier cuts of steak and tenderloin - come very close.

When investors look out across the range of possible investment opportunities, they don't choose at random. They do their homework, and only after thoroughly researching their options do they make decisions on where to invest their money. I'm always stunned at how uninformed many people are regarding the nutritional benefits (and costs) of the food they buy and eat. This lack of information prompts many people to make poor decisions on how they invest their money when buying food, leading to food costs that are far higher than necessary while often still not providing a balanced diet. The trick to making better food investment decisions is to learn about the food you're buying, so that when you visit the farmers' market or grocery store you can shop wisely.

Surely many who read this are crying foul, exclaiming with ferocity that food is more than just calories. They're right of course. This post marks the first of a series that will explore the broader issue of getting the most for our food dollars, and my next post will look at the cost per unit of vitamins and minerals for many of the same foods I've studied here. I expect this investigation to offer further insight in the particulars of enjoying reasonably priced, nutrient dense diets that are nourishing on many levels.


  1. By "high quality" I mean that all produce is certified organic, and all animal foods are pasture-raised. Calorie densities are from the US Department of Agriculture's National Nutrient Database.


Teaser image: Wikipedia/Patty Mooney/CC BY-SA 3.0

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