The Cost Of Eating Real Food

Thank you for all your insights to my question, Is Michael Pollan right that most Americans don’t care about eating whole foods given the paltry 27 minutes of cooking time spent, on average, every day. Now I’d like to pick your brain about the cost of real food.

In his book, “In Defense of Food,” Pollan writes: “Is it just a coincidence that as the portion of our income spent on food has declined, spending on health care has soared? In 1960 Americans spent 17.5 percent of their income on food and 5.2 percent of national income on health care. Since then, those numbers have flipped: Spending on food has fallen to 9.9 percent, while spending on health care has climbed to 16 percent of the national income. I have to think that by spending a little more on healthier food we could reduce the amount we have to spend on health care.”

I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth addressing on a regular basis. Real food – as in fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and meats (including healthy fish) – can be costly. Add in the organic component, and the prices are even higher. Pollan acknowledges that many people can’t afford to spend more on food, but argues that whole foods, while costlier than prepackaged processed foods, satisfy us longer and fill us up faster and with less calories, thus offering a savings in the end. I would also add that, being on a tight food budget myself, it is possible to buy healthy items like dried beans, canned or frozen fruits and vegetables, and staples such as whole grain flour to make homemade bread without breaking the bank.

Take, for instance, my homemade chili. Meatless, it requires tomatoes, broth, vegetables, beans and spices. I went to WalMart and added up the price of my chili versus the cost of one can of Hormel Chili. Up front cost for six 2-cup servings of chili is $14-$16, depending on whether you buy canned or dried beans. Keep in mind, this includes roughly $7 for the spices: chili powder, cumin, oregano, salt and pepper, which will yield at least 10 batches of chili, making the average cost for 10 batches of chili around $7.70-$9.70 each. The price changes very little if you make it with half the beans and add a pound of lean beef or ground turkey.

Each can of Hormel’s contains 2.5 cups of chili which, according to the nutrition label, is 2 servings of 1¼ cups each. Fat content is low – about 1 gram per serving – and the fiber content is high in both the vegetarian and meat-added versions. However, the sodium levels are ridiculous! There are 780 mgs of sodium PER SERVING in the vegetarian version and 1,250 mgs in the meat-added. Double that and that’s what’s inside an entire can of 2.5 cups. Like a guy said to me when he saw me reading the nutrition label, “That stuff’ll KILL ya!” Amen.

My chili makes 12 cups, which I divide into six 2-cup servings, each containing less than 300 mgs of sodium per serving. You’d need to buy 5 cans of Hormel at about $8 to equal the amount of chili I make for about $8. Nutrition and taste aside (I guarantee my chili is more tasty than anything you scrape out of a can), the difference is that it takes about two hours from start to finish to make my chili and about two minutes to make the Hormel. Which do you think more folks will go for?

The same math applies to spaghetti sauce, stew, and many of the other soups and casseroles I make. Up front costs can be stiff, but in the end, the quality, quantity and ultimately the value are much higher when I cook than when I buy pre-packaged and processed food.

Pollan (and many other nutritionists, food writers, and dieticians) includes in his suggestions for how to shop at the grocery store to “stay away from the center aisles.” I’ve never understood this piece of “advice.” Yes, I know a lot of non-nutritional foodstuff and processed foods hang out in the center of the store, but there’s plenty of it around the periphery, too.

Two words: Bakery and Deli. And god knows you can find plenty of junk in the dairy case (how do candy sprinkles in yogurt promote health?), the meat case (scrapple anyone?) and the produce section (dried fruit dressed up as candy…seriously?). The center aisles are full of good stuff if you know what to look for. Beans, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, condiments, pickles, nuts, oils, spices, sauces…the list is endless. The real foods in the inside aisles are not only healthy, but they can enhance the taste of the real foods you find on the periphery. They can also be more economical.

Advising people to avoid the center aisles doesn’t teach anything. In the end, it just makes people more confused. Stop demonizing the center aisles. They’ve got a lot to offer.

I did a rough calculation of how much my husband and I spend on groceries and it works out to be about 12 percent of our household income, up a few points from the average. We spend about 6 percent on health care costs (insurance premiums and co-pays). That can change, of course, depending on unanticipated health issues, but right now, the numbers seem to support Pollan’s assertion that if we spend more on better foods, we’ll spend less on healthcare.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this debate. What does your food spending say about your overall health compared to the overall food spending and health of the average American?

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