The Cost Perception Reality

It is a common perception that eating healthy food costs more than unhealthy food.  Such a statement is made of many assumptions, and like many other things in life, the devil is always in the detail.  I do agree, when you compare your standard ultraprocessed edible food-like substance with its reworked, but just-as-processed “health food aisle” cousin, that there is a premium to pay.  But this is not the aisle we want you to frequent.  We are talking real, cellular foods, not aggregations of powdered ingredients (which also rules out the costly “Paleo” home baking that is de riguer these days).

Mince
A $5 per plate hearty winter breakfast meal. No small but pricey “Paleo” muesli in this house. We eat big, well, and cheap.

When making price comparisons, one always needs to make sure they are comparing apples with apples, as it were.  For example, it is commonly claimed that a bottle of Coca Cola is cheaper than the same amount of milk.  At face value, this is true, especially if you are comparing them as drinks.  However, you are comparing a nutrient-poor beverage with something that people typically pour over their Weet-bix or make a cup of Milo with.  We would suggest that pouring Coke over your Weet-bix, or making Milo with hot Coke, is not something that most people are going to do.  Thus, it is not enough to compare liquid with liquid, but rather take into account the context of how something is used, and the expectation of nutrition to be derived from consumption.   Coke versus milk is simply not a valid comparison under this criterion.

But if people insist on arguing that Coca Cola is still cheaper, and price is their number one purchasing factor, then not buying Coca Cola and just drinking plain free water, should be a valid counter argument.  Ultimately, in this scenario at least, we end up arguing with someone’s preference and rationalisation for drinking Coke irrespective of price and no amount of logic will counter this.

When running these cost comparisons, I much prefer to look at the total cost of a meal, and the likely downstream effect this meal will have on either stimulating appetite (thus stimulating more food consumption – perhaps as a snack), or inducing satiety (thus leading to a feeling of fullness and no need to fill the gaps with additional snack foods).  It is important to take this approach as it factors in the full and true cost of eating.  In my experience, time and again, people often forget to factor in the snacks and treats they eat between meals because they get hungry.  They have their weekly supermarket spend (often screwed to bare minimum), but fail to account for the $10 here, $10 there, that they spend on “top up” foods.

To illustrate my point, I recently got my calculators and started crunching the numbers on some well-known breakfast combinations.  To make a valid comparison, I needed a valid anchor point.  Many use “calories”; how many calories I could get for X amount of dollars.  This comparison is fundamentally flawed in that it is built on the premise that our appetite is driven by calories, and that all calories are equal.  Our key appetite is not for calories – it is for protein – and it should be patently obvious to most people that 100 calories of sugar functions entirely differently to 100 calories of protein or 100 calories of ethanol.

HARN – DAVID RAUBENHEIMER “Penny Wise, Pound Foolish – Geometry, obesity and the cost of food” from HARN Human Animal Research Netwk on Vimeo.

Based on Professor Raubenheimer’s research, summarised above, I took an anchor point of 30g of protein – a level that should induce good satiety, meaning an individual should not need to eat again for a few hours at least.  A nutrient-dense and convenient food example that we might derive 30g of protein from, is eggs.

To do a cost-comparison of breakfast meals, I’ve used 5 scrambled eggs as my reference.  Five scrambled eggs will give you approximately 30g of protein, and will take you only a couple of minutes to cook (scrambled).

Using Countdown’s online store, I found that you can get a tray of eggs (20) for $6.00.  Of course, I’d much prefer people buy free-range eggs (ours cost us $5 per dozen), but as this is a discussion on cost, we want to make our reference meal one that is accessible to most people.   So my scrambled eggs reference breakfast will cost you $1.50 per meal (a fraction more adding a bit of butter to the mix), and will be a convenient, filling, and nutrient-dense way to start the day.  As a meal, it is likely to keep an individual going until lunch-time (based on my personal and clinical experience).

So let’s now look at other breakfast options, often perceived as being cheaper and more convenient, which are matched to my 30g of protein anchor point.

Weet-Bix

The Kiwi classic.  But when comparing Weet-bix with eggs, we need to keep in mind that not many (if any) people consume Weet-bix straight out of the box.  The classic Kiwi combo is Weet-bix, milk, and sugar.

[Sidebar: This is how Sanitarium are able to produce and advertise Weet-bix as being low in added sugar.  It is low in the sugar THEY add, because they know that YOU will add it in yourself.]

You will need 5-6 Weet-bix plus a cup of milk to come up to 30g of protein (assuming a modest tablespoon of sugar added to this, and assuming biological equivalence of this protein, which is a false assumption – but stay with me).

Cost per 30g protein serve: ~$1.40

The difference between this and our reference scrambled eggs is 10 cents.

There is, however, a much bigger difference in nutrient value, with the eggs beating the wheat biscuits, hands down.  There is also a MASSIVE difference in sugar consumed.  Weet-bix is considered a rapidly digested starch, breaking down to sugar and being absorbed in your gut about as fast as the sugar you add to it.

If we look at the total glycaemic load of 6 Weet-bix and 15g of added sugar, we come close to around 80g of rapidly absorbed sugars – or the equivalent of 20 teaspoons of sugar!  Don’t believe this is true? If you know someone who is a diabetic and has to measure their blood sugar on a regular basis, ask them what even a modest serve of Weet-bix will do to their blood glucose levels (hint: it will send them through the roof in most people).

Special K

Special K is promoted as a high-protein cereal that helps with weight management.

To hit our 30g of protein, you will need to consume double the listed serving size on the Kellogg’s Special K nutrition label – 2 cups of cereal (80g) + 1 cup of milk.

Cost per 30g protein serve:

A bowl of Special K + milk, consumed at a level that actually gives you a fighting chance of getting close to a sufficient protein intake at one meal, will cost you $2.70 per serve – $1.20 more than our eggs.

Sanitarium Up&Go

Liquid breakfasts are very popular, probably for the convenience factor, but also quite possibly for the amount of sugar generally buried in them.

In order to get 30g of protein from an Up&Go, you will need to drink not one, not two, but 3 of them!

Cost per 30g serve:

A 3-pack of Up&Go is $5.19, meaning our 30g protein Up&Go breakfast will also cost you $5.19!

So you can see that when you actually compare apples with apples, or in this case, equivalent levels of protein with protein, all the ‘cheap and convenient’ options from the cereal companies don’t quite stack up.

What I have mostly ignored here too, is the amount of sugar (amongst other nasties) you will be consuming to get to the required protein level in these common cereal company options.  Additionally, in these products, irrespective of the protein consumed, the satiety is likely to be low.  Certainly, I know from my experience with Weet-bix from a previous life, that it didn’t really matter how many Weet-bix I ate, they just wouldn’t hold my appetite and I’d be starving within a couple of hours.  By comparison, 5 scrambled eggs will keep me going, comfortably, for 4-5 hours.

To keep costs down, of course, you could eat far less than the 30g of protein I have anchored to in my comparisons here, perhaps sticking to the tiny serving suggestions from the manufacturers.  But then I’d wager that you’ll be starving by 10 o’clock and be off to grab that $6 muffin and syrupy latte/hot chocolate combo (ironically, the same cost as the $6 tray of 20 eggs that the latte drinkers will claim to be expensive to buy).  If you require a breakfast + a mid-morning fix to make it to lunch time, as opposed to just a high-protein, real-food breakfast, then legitimately, you need to factor this cost in (pushing the cost of your pre-lunch food consumption closer to $10).  But most won’t do this.  Bottom line, for most people, this isn’t an argument of food cost.

I could run similar comparisons across all meals, with much the same result.  Based on our weekly food spend, from which we end up eating ~20+ full meals per week (3 large breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, per day), for 2 active adults, each meal costs between $5-$7 (without even screwing ourselves right down to the cheapest sources).  Keep this in mind next time you see fast-food/takeaway “meals” advertised for $10 and you claim it is cheaper to eat out than at home.

There can be no doubt that if one wants to malnourish themselves, they can do it very cheaply in our modern food environment.  There can also be no doubt that New Zealand does have a growing social inequalities that mean a percentage of the population have VERY limited choices regarding just how much nourishment they can afford (that we have this issue should never lead to the argument “people can’t afford eggs, so we’ll feed them processed shite that adds to keeping them trapped in the poverty cycle”, but rather, how to we reduce the inequalities so that good nutritious food, as a basic fundamental right, is affordable by all).  For the rest, and particularly for the predominantly middle-class who like to rattle of the “healthy food costs too much line” (often with their views distorted as to what is healthy), nourishment can come at the same price, if not much less, than the processed rubbish they currently gravitate toward.

Banner image PC:  Paul Welsby [CC BY-NC 4.0]
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