Adam Drewnowski

In any supermarket, the healthier food choice is not always the more affordable choice. Improving access to nutritious food, at reasonable prices, has been the cornerstone of First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to prevent childhood obesity.

Inspired by her Let’s Move campaign, Walmart announced last year that it would make healthier foods more affordable to budget-conscious consumers. Walmart planned to lower the prices on fresh fruits and vegetables and to lower the current price premium on reduced-calorie or more nutrient-dense options. As more people start eating healthier, noted a Walmart spokesperson, healthy eating will become more affordable to all.

New methods and metrics created by the University of Washington’s Center for Public Health Nutrition include nutrients per serving, nutrient per calorie, and nutrients per penny. The challenge—for consumers and the food industry alike—is to make sure that the foods people buy are nutrient-dense, affordable, and appealing. In those new initiatives, research and industry innovations will be key.

Contrast these national efforts in the U.S. to improve access to affordable healthy foods, including fresh produce, with a recent report from the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Andrea Carlson and Betsy Frazao, economists and study coauthors, argue that, contrary to popular belief, healthy foods do not cost any more than “junk” foods. Their key to make fresh produce seem cheaper relative to other foods is to price everything by weight. Vegetables and fruit will appear to be as cheap as candy or soda, provided that the pricing is done by something called “edible pound”.

Say what? “The price of potato chips is nearly twice as expensive as the price of carrots by portion size,” Carlson told USA Today. Never mind that delicious baby carrots are 90% water, which provides no energy and no nutrients, whereas processed potato chips provide, per edible pound, four times the amount of potassium and more vitamin C. Of course, potato chips also provide more calories, which may be good or bad, depending on whether you are a hungry teenager or a nutrition scold.

The ERS report was devoted, in large part, to attacking the standard method of using calories per dollar to compare food prices. For example, skim milk and whole milk cost about the same per gallon at the grocery store, but because of its lower energy content, skim milk has a higher price per calorie than does whole milk. If people cared about the cost per calorie, Carlson argues, then no one would drink skim milk, diet soft drinks, or bottled water.

In reality, food purchases are largely determined by socioeconomic status (SES). The more affluent and better educated groups do drink low-fat milk, diet soft drinks, and bottled water, whereas lower SES groups drink whole milk and regular sweetened beverages. Cost per calorie may have something to do with it. Higher income people purchase fresh strawberries, other berries, and baby carrots, whereas lower income people stick with cheaper bananas and frozen orange juice. In general, in the U.S. food supply, empty calories are cheap whereas many nutrient-dense foods (not all) are more expensive. Higher SES groups do not consume more calories, but their calories cost more.

“Healthy food no more costly than junk food, government finds” was how the USDA report was promoted nationally and worldwide. And yet, purchasing a daily ration of 2,000 kcal at a reasonable cost is something that many households struggle with each day, especially when money is tight. As food prices rise, or incomes drop, nutrition is compromised as families turn to foods that can keep them full at least cost. Strawberries and carrots do give way to noodles, sweets, and tortilla chips. Not surprisingly, hidden hunger manifested as vitamin and mineral deficiencies is most common among the most vulnerable groups. Food prices may have something to do with it.

Denying that healthier foods cost more is risky business. If healthy foods are already so inexpensive, then why is Michelle Obama working to lower food prices and to assure better nutrition for children, families, and seniors? Reinforcing the perception that healthful foods cost practically nothing while SNAP or food assistance recipients spend taxpayers’ money on junk foods can have unintended consequences. For one, such perceptions may have influenced the 2012 U.S. farm bill, H.R. 6083, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2012. The House version will reduce the future growth of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by $16.5 billion over the next 10 years. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP helps families purchase more nutritious foods.

“Price is not a good excuse for not eating a nutritious diet,” ERS Carlson told USA Today. The estimated 2–3 million people, mostly seniors and poor families with children, who will be dropped from the SNAP food assistance, will be pleased to hear it.


 Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., is Director,
Center for Public Health Nutrition, University of Washington ([email protected]).