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Jul 13, 2011

Food cost: healthy vs. junk


New research from the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) points to an interesting geographic variation in the relative price of healthy foods, which may give some Americans “an economic incentive to consume a less healthful diet.”

The study started with seven healthy food groups. Then, using data from the Quarterly Food-at-Home Price Database, it compared prices for 100 grams of healthy groups with prices of less healthy alternatives:
  • Whole-grain products were compared with refined-grain counterparts
  • Dark green and orange vegetables were compared with starchy vegetables
  • Whole fruit was compared with commercially prepared sweet snacks
  • Low-fat milk was compared with whole and 2% milk, and with carbonated nonalcoholic beverages
  • Bottled water was compared with carbonated nonalcoholic beverages
  • Fruit juice was compared with noncarbonated nonalcoholic caloric beverages (fruit drinks)
What the study found

Well…it’s complicated:

1. Some healthy foods were more expensive than less healthy foods, but in other cases, healthier options were less expensive.
  • Whole grains were more expensive than reined grains across the United States, with prices ranging from 23 percent higher (San Francisco) to more than 60 percent higher (nonmetro Pennsylvania and New York) than for reined grains.
  • Fresh and frozen dark green vegetables were more expensive than starchy vegetables in all markets (prices ranging from 20 to 80 percent higher than starchy vegetables), but orange vegetables (e.g., carrots, sweet potatoes, and winter squash) were less expensive than starchy vegetables in some markets, including metro New York, San Francisco, and Florida.
  • Low-fat milk (skim and 1%) was between 10-20 percent less expensive than whole and 2% milk in most markets.
  • Low-fat milk was more expensive than nonalcoholic carbonated beverages in some markets, but less expensive in others.
  • Bottled water is the same price or less expensive than soda in all but one market (urban New York), with a price ranging from 6 percent (Boston) to over 33 percent (San Francisco) lower than the price for soda.
2. Prices of healthy foods vary widely across the United States.
  • Whole grains, dark green and orange vegetables, low-fat milk, and fruit juice demonstrate the largest geographic price variation.
  • The geographic variation in the price of whole fruit when compared with sweet or savory commercially prepared snacks is generally smaller than that of other comparisons. On a per-gram basis, whole fruit is 60-70 percent less expensive in all markets.
Download the entire study, “Geographic Differences in the Relative Price of Healthy Foods.”
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