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Making Good Food Affordable

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In Treating Food as an Investment, I note the relationship between reduced food expenditures in the United States over the past several decades and the increasing trend in healthcare spending. There are many reasons underlying this relationship, but among them is the fact that most Americans buy very low quality food, a habit that harms our health on many levels. I’m well aware that many people throughout the US face challenging financial situations, which begs the question: Can we afford to buy higher quality food?

While there are certainly differences in cost between high and low quality foods, I don’t think those differences are always as stark as many believe. Part of what drives food price perceptions is that many people think in terms of price per pound of food rather than price per kilocalorie, and its the kilocalories – the food energy – that actually powers our metabolism. The graph below shows the cost per 100 kilocalories for several types of high quality food at my local farmers’ market and grocery cooperative, and I include the McDonalds hamburger to offer a sense for the cost of cheap, highly processed food [1].


McDonalds and other fast food companies are well known for producing some of the cheapest calories money can buy in the developed world, so seeing the McDonalds hamburger at the far left shouldn’t surprise anyone. Beef liver, perhaps one of the most nutrient dense foods in existence, is darn near as cheap though, and the price used for these calculations is what I pay for high quality grass fed liver, not cheap liver from animals raised in confined feedlots. Calorie dense root vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes are also fairly inexpensive on a per-calorie basis, as are pastured eggs and grass fed ground beef. After these foods we surpass $1 per 100 kilocalories, an arbitrary threshold to be sure but one that certainly drives up the cost of a daily diet. What might surprise many is that common organic vegetables like broccoli, spinach and lettuce, as well as common fruits like applies, oranges and blueberries (which are in season in Vermont right now) are towards the upper end of the price scale, making them comparative luxury items relative to other more nutrient dense foods.

On a per-pound basis meat and eggs tend to cost more than vegetables and fruit, especially high quality grass fed meats and pastured eggs, making people shy away from them. This is unfortunate since the price differential is negated by animal foods’ higher calorie density, so that costs per calorie for meat and eggs are usually equal to or lower than that of most fruits and vegetables. High quality animal foods will probably never beat a McDonalds hamburger, but organ meats like liver – which are far more nutritious than pricier cuts of steak and tenderloin – come very close.

When investors look out across the range of possible investment opportunities, they don’t choose at random. They do their homework, and only after thoroughly researching their options do they make decisions on where to invest their money. I’m always stunned at how uninformed many people are regarding the nutritional benefits (and costs) of the food they buy and eat. This lack of information prompts many people to make poor decisions on how they invest their money when buying food, leading to food costs that are far higher than necessary while often still not providing a balanced diet. The trick to making better food investment decisions is to learn about the food you’re buying, so that when you visit the farmers’ market or grocery store you can shop wisely.

Surely many who read this are crying foul, exclaiming with ferocity that food is more than just calories. They’re right of course. This post marks the first of a series that will explore the broader issue of getting the most for our food dollars, and my next post will look at the cost per unit of vitamins and minerals for many of the same foods I’ve studied here. I expect this investigation to offer further insight in the particulars of enjoying reasonably priced, nutrient dense diets that are nourishing on many levels.


  1. By “high quality” I mean that all produce is certified organic, and all animal foods are pasture-raised. Calorie densities are from the US Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database.

6 Comments on "Making Good Food Affordable"

  1. MSN Fanboy on Tue, 29th Jul 2014 2:35 pm 

    Food is Food, quality is only perception.

  2. Makati1 on Tue, 29th Jul 2014 9:24 pm 

    MSN, you are correct in that quality is NOT as important as the nutrition it contains. So much of the supermarket supplied food contains little or no nutrition, just empty calories, but it is pretty.

    There is not enough “organic/pasture” grown food to even begin to feed the 315+ million in the US alone. If you tried to do that, we would need 90% of Americans to go back to the farm. OH! Hmmm … the future?

    Learning to eat only ‘in season’ foods is also going to be necessary very soon. Retrograde history anyone?

  3. farmlad on Tue, 29th Jul 2014 9:55 pm 

    Most US farm raised animals are fed a ration. These rations are put together by a professional using a computer program and entering the different feeds available (with there nutritional content according to a feed analysis from the lab) and also the price of each feed, to come up with the most economical feed that meets the nutritional requirements of a set of animals. But when it comes to us humans, at best, we just guess at what we need and at worst case, we just eat what we like. I say go for it; and at least do some nutritional/cost analysis and come up with your version of some model meals,they also need to pass some for palatability test. In South America I remember the food sections in the newspaper seemed to promote meals that would give you a nutritional balance on a weekly basis.
    And a side note, if you want to get the most energy and the benefits of healthy fatty acid profiles like omega 3’s from your grass fed meats, you’ve got to eat all the fat.

  4. farmlad on Tue, 29th Jul 2014 10:18 pm 

    Mak Most supermarket food is very nutrient dense. Thats why we like it. The nutrients that are out of balance with each other is where the big problem lies. for example;My guess on most any pizza. High in starch, omega 6 fat, and phosphorus. medium to low in protein,selenium. and very low in omega 3’s, zinc, Iodine, enzymes, prebiotics, and many vitamins. So until your body has enough of a significant portion of any of these nutrients it could tend to crave more food. So our epidemic of obesity should come as no surprise, and is just plain malnutrition.

  5. Jerry L on Wed, 30th Jul 2014 1:39 am 

    I remember someone once told me (about 30 years ago) that cabbage was the world’s cheapest source of vitamin C. I wonder if that holds today. Similar bar charts like that above for different nutrients would be interesting indeed.

  6. Makati1 on Wed, 30th Jul 2014 5:35 am 

    JerryL, I think you are correct. Cabbage is one of the best veggies you can eat. And, it can be stored in root cellars a long time or made into sauerkraut which also lasts a long time without preservation. It is easy to grow.

    As for nutrient dense. Do you read the labels? Most canned goods are practically void of what you need in the way of minerals. They have some vitamins, but are over salted and sugared, which cause you to crave more.

    As you said, even fresh veggies and fruits are grown in poor soil and lack the trace minerals we need to be healthy. If you add those to your garden, you will be amazed at how much better the produce tastes and looks. It also seems to make the plants grow better and be more resistant to pests. Or so I remember from my gardens.

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