Recently I’ve been involved in a couple of online discussions about the cost of a nutritious diet. The crucial issue is why poor people in rich countries seem to have such unhealthy diets. One argument is about the cost of food. Another is about everything other than cost: knowledge, equipment, time, conditions.
My own opinion is that given all those other things, the externalities, a nutritious diet is actually not that expensive. But that’s just an opinion, so I went looking for information, and found it in a paper entitled Using the Thrifty Food Plan to Assess the Cost of a Nutritious Diet, published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs in 2009. The very first sentence of that paper is:
How much does a nutritious diet cost?
Parke Wilde, author of that paper, is an agricultural economist at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, and I really enjoyed talking to him for the podcast.
Our discussion was limited to the United States and to the peculiarities of SNAP, but it is clear that other rich countries are also grappling with the difficulties of deciding what constitutes a nutritious diet and how to ensure that poor people can afford to eat it. Parke alluded to some of the crucial policy decisions, such as not allowing people to spend their SNAP benefits on things like alcohol while at the same time giving them the freedom to buy sugar-sweetened sodas if they so choose. There are incentives to buy healthier food, but even those come up against an important fact.
Unhealthy calories are much cheaper than healthy calories.
One study, which I found here, looked at exactly what you can buy for a dollar. If you’re looking for a snack, a dollar’s worth of cookies will buy you 1200 calories. The same dollar on carrots gets you only 250 calories. Thirsty? A dollar of orange juice is worth 170 calories, while a dollar of sugar-sweetened soda is 875 calories. Of course calories aren’t everything. But in the short term, if you’re hungry, calories are everything.
A different version of the same sort of story is the “healthy food is more expensive” trope, which crops up regularly. In the UK, a 2014 study claimed that on average 1000 calories of “healthy” food cost about 3 times more than 1000 calories of “unhealthy” food. This kind of study – and others like it – uses government agency definitions of healthy and unhealthy but doesn’t actually take nutrition into account. The cheapest category in that study was starchy carbohydrates – which the UK’s Food Standards Agency places just behind fruit and vegetables in terms of “healthiness”. You could eat a lot of “bread, rice, potatoes and pasta” for calories and a bit of fruit and vegetables for nutrients and end up with a pretty nutritious diet.
Would you want to, though?
That’s the crux of the matter. A nutritious diet can be had for reasonably little money (given that you know how to cook and have the facilities) but you might not enjoy it all that much.
Using the Thrifty Food Plan to Assess the Cost of a Nutritious Diet
If you really want to get some insight into the tricky triple balancing act of foods, nutrients and cash, Parke Wilde and his collaborators have made their model available for you to play with.
Parke Wilde’s website. A really interesting recent piece of his looked at proposals to amend SNAP to restrict access to sugar-sweetened beverages.
The USDA’s monthly Cost of Food reports are online
The banner photograph is from Millie Copper who tried to buy a healthy diet based on the Thrifty Food Plan costs for a couple of weeks.
Thanks to Christopher Gifford, a great Patreon, for inspiring this episode.
Peel an onion, and stick five or six whole cloves in it. Put it in a saucepan with about 500 gm of brown or green lentils. Add a stock cube or a spoonful of miso paste if you have some, but if you haven’t, that’s OK. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 30–45 minutes.  Serve with lots of bread and a nice green salad.
I’ve actually written at length about this before, but cannot for the life of me find it now. ↩
You can just boil for about 5 minutes and then swaddle the whole thing in cushions or blankets, or a ready made haybox if you have one. ↩