How much does healthy eating cost?

A woman shops at a Manhattan grocery store in New York City.

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Kai Ryssdal: We got the government's report on inflation at the wholesale level this morning. There isn't any, is the short headline.

The Producer Price index was up a barely noticeable 4 tenths of a percent last month. Prices for pretty much everything were flat or falling in October. Food economists over at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, though, are trying to read the tea leaves for next year. They figure our grocery costs could rise as much as 3 percent in 2011 thanks to crop shortages and higher demand.

And the cost of healthy food is growing way faster than food that's perhaps not-so-good for us. From the Marketplace Sustainability desk, Adriene Hill itemizes the recommended daily allowance.


Adriene Hill: How much do 2,000 calories cost? Well, it all depends on what you buy. You could eat your Greek yogurt with organic raspberries for breakfast, a turkey avocado wrap for lunch, maybe some wild-caught Alaskan King Salmon, green beans and a whole wheat roll for dinner, then some strawberries drizzled with heavy cream for dessert. All told, it'll set you back $25.86, give or take. Or, for 2,000 calories, you could buy 10 donuts for about five bucks.

Starches, grains and beans are significantly cheaper than lean meats, seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables for many reasons, including government subsidies and food perishability. And, it turns out, that massive price discrepancy is only one of the very interesting things about the high cost of eating well.

Dr. Adam Drewnowski: What we found was that the obesity rate among Whole Foods shoppers along the order of 4 percent, whereas elsewhere it went up to 35 or 40 percent. That's a 10-fold difference.

Dr. Adam Drewnowski is from the University of Washington in Seattle. He says it's not just your imagination. Those women buying gourmet steel-cut Irish oatmeal do look better in yoga pants than the rest of us.

Drewnowski: Trust me, you knew this ahead of time, didn't you? You suspected this, didn't you?

No, you can't get skinny by shopping at Whole Foods. Expensive chili-infused chocolate is still chocolate. But, Drewnowski found (PDF) people who care about nutrition are more likely to shop at higher-end grocery stores, where they think they can get more nutritious food. And, people on a budget who shop at lower-price stores can be lured by the junk food they can get for cheap.

Which brings me to really interesting food-related tidbit number two: A study from the University of Buffalo found that if you lower the cost of healthy food, shoppers use the money they save to buy more chips and cookies.

Brenda Roche: Junk food's convenient, it tastes good. We just have a natural predisposition to like this type of food; we like fats and sweets and sugars.

Brenda Roche is a dietitian for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County. She teaches low-income families to eat better. The Buffalo study found it was easier to change people's eating habits if you instead raise the price of junk food. Roche says raising the price of soda might make people stop and think about how much they're actually spending.

Roche: When we talk with youth and we show them when they spend about $2.50-3.50 a day on soda and snack foods after school, how much that adds up to over time -- over a year, five years, 10 years. It's just mind boggling.

And here's a third, food-related mind boggler for all you enviro-foodies out there. This one a little more focused on the environment than pricing: There's a long-standing debate, hundreds of message back and forth on list-servs and Internet message boards -- no doubt soon to be the subject of a New Yorker cartoon -- about how bad milk is for the environment. To make milk, you've got to have a cow -- feed it, give it lots of water. Cows are needy.

Again, Dr. Adam Drewnowski from the University of Washington.

Drewnowski: When you start looking at carbon dioxide emissions, they're going to be coming from three sources: Production, transportation and packaging.

A carbon footprint analysis Drewnowski looked at found milk near the bottom, and...

Drewnowski: The most sustainable beverage was in fact a carbonated soft drink.

The sugar was local, the tap water was local, the soda was produced locally. But, it just makes no sense, says Drewnowski. If you want to know if a food or drink is worth its carbon, you've got to factor in its nutritional value. If you do that, milk is at the top of the list. Chew on that.

I'm Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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