Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure the Price
by Andrea Carlson
and Elizabeth Frazao
Economic Information Bulletin No. (EIB-96) 50 pp, May 2012
What Is the Issue?
Most Americans consume diets that fall short of the
recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans
2010. A common perception is that diets consistent with the
recommendations are not affordable. This perception may be
influenced by studies that found many healthy foods to cost more
per calorie than less healthy foods. This is one way, but not the
only way, to measure the cost of a healthy diet.
For a balanced assessment, this study compares the prices of
healthy and less healthy foods using three price metrics: the price
per calorie, per edible gram, and per average portion. The authors
also calculate the daily cost of meeting the food group
recommendations on the ChooseMyPlate.gov website.
Previous studies also sometimes lack a clear definition of
healthy foods, which are defined in this report as food items
• Contain an amount of a food in at least one of the major food
groups (vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and protein foods) equal
to at least half the portion size that the Dietary Guidelines
for Americans 2010 uses for measuring the nutrients in that
• Contain only moderate amounts of saturated fats, added sugars,
What Were the Major Findings?
The authors found that the metric used to measure the price of
food items has a large effect on which foods are more
• Foods low in calories for a given weight appear to have a higher
price when the price is measured per calorie. For example,
vegetables and fruits, which are low in calories, tend to be a
relatively expensive way to purchase food energy.
• Conversely, less healthy foods (called "moderation foods" in
this report)-especially those high in saturated fat and added
sugar-tend to be high in calories and to have a low price per
• When measured on the basis of edible weight or average portion
size, grains, vegetables, fruit, and dairy foods are less expensive
than most protein foods and foods high in saturated fat, added
sugars, and/or sodium.
• In following the food group recommendations at
ChooseMyPlate.gov, it is less costly to meet the grains, dairy, and
fruit recommendations than those for vegetables or protein
How Was the Study Conducted?
The authors estimated the cost for 4,439 food items by the price
per calorie, per edible gram, and per average portion consumed. The
study drew on three data sets: the National Health and Nutrition
Examination Survey (NHANES) to estimate the types and quantities of
foods consumed, the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and
Promotion (CNPP) food prices database for food prices, and the USDA
Food Pattern Equivalent Database (formerly known as the MyPyramid
Equivalent Database) for information on food group classification,
saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium content.