The Cost of Buying Healthy

December 20th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

Conventional thinking that healthful foods are expensive has been disproven, but not for all.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

The conventional wisdom has been that lower-income families can’t afford higher quality, fresh foods. Many studies link low income to lower quality, processed foods, leading to health problems that include vitamin deficiency and higher obesity rates. Not to mention, fast food chains tend to set up shop in low-income, high-density areas.

But until recently, no one had actually done the math on the extra cost per person to eat a healthier diet of vegetables and lean protein. Recently, the Harvard School of Public Health took on the challenge. “People often say that healthier foods are more expensive, and that such costs strongly limit better diet habits,” Mayuree Rao, who led Harvard’s study, offered. “But, until now, the scientific evidence for this idea has not been systematically evaluated, nor have the actual differences in cost been characterized.”

Rao and her team examined 27 studies from 19 high-income countries, comparing healthy and less-healthy options from the grocery aisle, using both price per serving and price per 200 calories to price out the difference. (One example compared whole-grain bread against cheaper, white bread, for instance.) The group’s analysis arrived on a cost difference across countries, and also concentrated on U.S. food prices alone, of $1.48.

And while the equivalent of a cheap cup of coffee per day seems like little to pay for good health, the per-person charge adds up for low-income families. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and epidemiologist at Harvard who worked on the study, said that while the priced difference amounted to much less than some people expected, “it’s also a real barrier for some low-income families,” translating to about an extra $550 a year for one person.

NPR notes that the research, recently published in the British Medical Journal Open, comes as House and Senate negotiators on Capitol Hill are debating a new farm bill – including billions of dollars in cuts to the federal food-assistance program now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Rao is in favor of subsidizing healthy foods while taxing unhealthier options, like soda. “These are evidence-based ways to address the price imbalance and nudge people towards a healthier diet,” she said. “These are strategies our policymakers should be looking at.”

Are you surprised by the relatively low dollar amount? What policies would be most responsible to adopt to make up the difference for lower income families? Weigh in.