This is huge topic of debate among my classmates and I. It’s definitely a complicated topic with many factors outside just the basic rules of supply and demand. For example, corn, soy, and grain subsidies affect the entire food system, not just the price or sale of these items. But I won’t bore you with a rant on the problems with our food system.
As a grad student, I’ve certainly had to learn how to eat on a budget – but I also won’t sacrifice nutritional value and have found a lot of ways to eat healthy on a budget!
Back in October, Kathleen Merrigan, the deputy secretary of the US department of agriculture, spoke at Tufts. One of the most memorable parts are her speech was her discussion of the uphill battle she is fighting when it comes to convincing people that you can eat a healthful diet on a limited budget. She talked about the cost of a cup of apples (21 cents), carrots (25 cents), and bananas (28 cents). For less than $1 you can get half the daily recommended serving of fruits and vegetables.
Now, this is just an average, and doesn’t mean that everyone has access to these foods or prices. But, the point she was trying to make is that the argument that healthy food costs too much is not a valid one.
A new study published in Public Health Nutrition, looked at this controversy a little more closely. The researches used two tools to evaluate the healthfulness of different foods at the grocery store: NuVal and Nutrition Detectives.
NuVal is a nutrition ranking system that calculates a value between 1-100 (100 is the most nutritious) The system takes into account over 30 nutrients along with other nutrition factors (type of fat, amount of sugar, etc) and boils it down to one number. You may have seen this system, or another similar system, on the shelves at your grocery store. Though it hasn’t necessarily changed consumers purchasing habits, it was certainly helpful for this study.
Nutrition Detectives is a nutrition education program developed to, “teach kids to make healthy choices.” The program focuses on reading food labels, detecting marketing deceptions, and making good food choices.
David Katz, MD, primary investigator on this study, sent shoppers to the scour the shelves of the grocery store and purchase an equal number of foods that either met or did not meet the criteria. When the shoppers returned, they reviewed the nutrition content of each product, using the two systems above.
What did they find?
In general, nutritious foods did not cost anymore than the non-nutritious food. The researchers found that outside the produce aisle, nutrition and price do not correlate in any way. As a note, this study only took into consideration prices at grocery stores across several markets. It did not factor in fast food prices or cost of foods at small corner or convenience stores.
We need to shift the way we think about the value of our food
When comparing foods calorie for calorie, less nutritious foods may cost less; however, are calories really the nutrient we want more of? In most cases, probably not. This study looks at which nutrients you are getting for your hard earned dollar. In my mind, this is the most important consideration when comparing prices of foods. In his review in the Huffington Post a few weeks ago, Katz sums this up well:
Throughout most of human history, calories were relatively scarce and hard to get. More calories per dollar was a logical metric for food value in such a world. But that is no longer our world. Ours is a world of epidemic obesity, and more calories per dollar simply means the chance to gain more weight at no extra charge. Many people are willing to spend a fortune to lose the pounds they gained for free! Perhaps it’s time to recognize that nutrition per dollar is the better measure of value.
Let’s compare a bag of chips to a bag of 8 oranges, which right now (since oranges are in season) cost about the same – $2.50 – $3.00. Calorie for calorie, the chips are better deal. However, what are you REALLY getting with those calories? Fat, salt, and sometimes chemicals to name a few things. The oranges, on the other hand, give you nearly a full daily dose of vitamin C along with several other nutrients. This doesn’t seem like a hard choice to me.
Eating a healthful, well-rounded diet can be more expensive if you don’t know what you’re looking for or how to evaluate healthfulness, which is a challenge many consumers face. But, if you choose your foods wisely and cook at home, you can eat a nutrient filled diet on a limited budget.
Here are a few of the money saving strategies I use when I grocery shop:
Eat in season: Eating in season not only saves money, but the food often tastes better too because the growing conditions are at their peak (have you tasted a tomato recently? They have NO flavor!). Most of the time, food that’s in season doesn’t have to travel very far to get to your grocery store, which cuts back on transportation costs and allows the food to be harvested when it’s ripe, not before. Also, there is a greater supply of the food, leading to reduced prices for the consumer. This may mean being a little more adventurous with your produce at certain times of year, particularly in the winter, but that adds some fun to cooking and eating!
A few of my favorite late winter/early spring foods: artichokes; leeks and potatoes (can I say potato leek soup? YUM); oranges and grapefruits; and leafy greens like chard, kale, and spinach.
Buy in bulk: when available and if you have the storage space, buying in bulk saves you in the long run. This strategy works best for foods you eat regularly. Also, pre-portioned foods (i.e. mini 100-calorie packs or pre-cut produce) cost more. Instead, portion it out at home.
Choose store brand over name brand: This requires a little label reading, but you are an expert now, if you read this post! Check labels to make sure the store brand contains the same nutrients and doesn’t include extra chemicals or additional fat, sugar, or sodium. It also requires a little experimentation and may not be the right choice for every food product you buy because sometimes the store brand doesn’t taste the same. Often though, it’s worth the savings!
Meal plan: this is a big one! Plan out your meals for the week, make a grocery list, and stick to the list when you get to the store. It’s easy to get distracted by enticing grocery store displays (they set up the food to look so attractive for a reason!), but if you have a list to stick to, you’ll be less likely to spend extra money on unnecessary items. This not only keeps your grocery bill in check, but will help you stick to your healthful eating plan as well!
Look for sales: ok, this probably seems obvious. But, keep an eye out for sales on foods you eat regularly and stock up when they’re on sale, even if you don’t need them that moment. It will save money in the long run.
Have other strategies for saving a few bucks at the grocery store? Please share them.
Don’t forget to email me with questions at Sarah@foodandfitnessfriend.com.
Happy deal hunting!
- your food and fitness friend.