Is healthy food really more expensive?

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One of the common excuses I hear from people when I suggest dietary changes is that healthy food is too expensive. When you compare calorie-for-calorie, the average price for a healthy diet is really only $1.50 more per day than an unhealthy one.

So why does everyone think healthy food is more expensive? One of the biggest reasons is because we insist that it should be.

Perception fuels reality

Since we all “know” that healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy processed foods, manufacturers that try to do the right thing and avoid all the high-fructose corn syrup and soy bean oil have to raise the price of their products or consumers won’t believe it’s actually healthy.

This may sound like an excuse, but a study out of Ohio State University demonstrated how price influences our perceptions. They performed 5 different experiments with different participants to see how price influenced health perceptions and vice versa:

Experiment 1: In the first experiment, participants were asked to guess the price of a new product called “granola bites.” One group was told the product had received a health score of an A- while the other group was told it received a C grade. The A- group rated the price much higher than the C group.

Experiment 2: Another group was told to rate how healthy two breakfast crackers were based on price. They rated the more expensive cracker as healthier.

Experiment 3: Another experiment asked participants to imagine picking up a lunch item for a co-worker. They were able to chose between a Chicken Balsamic Wrap or a Roasted Chicken Wrap. All the ingredients were listed for each, but the price for one was randomly higher than the other for each participant. When the “co-worker” asked for a healthy option, the participants were much more likely to chose the more expensive wrap (whichever it was).

Experiment 4: The point of this experiment was to see how price influenced decision making when participants were less familiar with the subject. Some participants saw products touting the benefits of vitamin A for eye health (a nutrient people are familiar with) while others saw products claiming it was rich in DHA for eye healthy (a nutrient people are less familiar with). They then asked people about the importance of the main ingredient (either vitamin A or DHA) and the condition it helps prevent, macular degeneration (which leads to blindness). The vitamin A group considered the nutrient and the condition important regardless of price. The DHA group only considered the nutrient important in the expensive food. Even more interesting, when they were told DHA protects against macular degeneration, they only considered this a serious health issue if the food itself was more expensive. A higher price not only made the nutrient seem more important, but the disease it prevented was viewed more seriously as well.

Experiment 5: The final experiment asked participants to evaluate a new product that used the slogan the “healthiest protein bar on the planet.” Both groups were told the average price of protein bars on the market was 2 dollars. One group was then told the “world’s healthiest bar” would cost 4 dollars while the other group was told it would only cost 99 cents. They were then allowed to read reviews of the bar before giving their evaluation. When the bar was half the price, participants read significantly more reviews than when it was twice as expensive.

Avoid packaged foods in geneal

Now, all these perceptions apply to packaged food anyway, and the one thing I try to get across more than anything is that you’re far better off if you avoid foods with a label on it in the first place. Just filling half your plate with vegetables is the easiest way to drastically improve the quality of your meals. You don’t need to start with fancy organic varieties. Frozen vegetables have been shown to be just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts and at a much cheaper price.

Not all that different

We’re all been bombarded with messages about how cheap, processed foods are unhealthy (I do it here as well), so we assume the opposite must be true, that healthy foods must be expensive. It feels logical, but you should never just assume the opposite of anything is automatically true. Just like how I wanted to debunk the myth that only bad tasting foods are healthy, I want to explain that healthy foods being more expensive is a myth as well.

As I mentioned above, a meta-analysis by the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that the average cost of a healthy diet was only $1.50 more per day than an unhealthy one. They compared costs based on 200 calorie portions and 2000 calorie per day diets. I know I’m using this as an example of how it’s not that much more expensive when the study itself actually concludes that $1.50 is a significantly more expensive cost. I understand that the additional cost of $550 per year can be a burden to lower-income families, but there’s an important point that the study glossed over when comparing a healthy and unhealthy diet (and for simplicity sake I’m going to exclude health care costs).

You’ll save money by eating less

Whether by design or by accident, a big side effect of processed food is that it interferes with your appetite regulating mechanisms and causes you to overeat. People don’t become overweight because the food is unhealthy, they become overweight because the unhealthy food caused them to eat (and buy) way too much of it. Healthy food satisfies your appetite and it gets your body’s chemistry working for you instead of against you. You don’t need to go to Whole Foods to change the quality of your diet, you just need to avoid the center aisles full of processed foods. They can sit on those unrefrigerated shelves because they use sugar as a natural preservative to extend their shelf-life (at the expense of shortening your lifespan). Look at my guide on how to structure your diet and you’ll see how easy it is to eat healthier and ultimately bring your total food costs down.

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