Thursday, 2 August 2012

why some people think healthy food is expensive

I have written two posts contradicting people who think that healthy food is expensive and that poor people can't afford healthy food, poor people can't afford to eat healthy food? and more about poverty and food. I have also compiled a table comparing the cheapness of foods in terms of calories per penny. This is an important issue because unemployment is very high now. People need to know how they can best spend their money.

Just recently I have been looking at a web forum where people have been discussing this issue. I can see why some people believe that healthy foods are more expensive. I can see where they are going wrong. Eating healthy food doesn't mean you have to buy organic food or eat wholegrains or any of the expensive stuff.

Let's take one food as an example. White rice. People ask 'What is the healthy alternative to white rice?'. The answer? - brown rice. And brown rice is more expensive than white rice. Therefore the healthy food is more expensive than the unhealthy food. But white rice is the healthier alternative to processed foods. Both brown and white rice are healthier - and both cheaper - than burgers or crisps. So, it's not true to say that healthy foods are more expensive. Here are more points, usually in response to what people wrote on the forum.

  • fresh or organic vegetables are more expensive than frozen vegetables, but frozen vegetables are just as good or nearly just as good
  • organic foods are more expensive than non-organic foods but you don't need them, if they are healthier then they're not much healthier
  • fancy breads are more expensive than a cheap white loaf, but the cheapest form of bread is in the form of chapattis you make at home
  • free-range or organic chicken is more expensive than cheap chicken, but not if you eat a smaller amount; people eat far more protein than they need
  • free-range or organic eggs are more expensive than cheap eggs, but cheap eggs aren't that much less nutritious, if at all
  • cheap cheddar from the supermarket or cheese triangles are cheaper than fancy cheeses from a farmers' market, but all cheeses are much the same in terms of nutrients, cheap cheese isn't less healthy
  • tofu may be more expensive than cheap chicken, but you don't need that much protein and the cheapest form of protein will always be beans, peas and lentils
  • blueberries and other 'superfoods' are more expensive than more common fruit but you don't need them; you can get most of your vitamins and minerals from vegetables
  • fish is often more expensive than meat, but you don't need either
  • soya milk is more expensive than cow's milk, but soya milk isn't much healthier than skimmed cow's milk
  • fruit juice is more expensive than soft drinks; do what I do and drink water from the tap
Another thing is, you have to ask yourself why is brown rice more expensive than white rice. After all, they don't have to process it so much, and processing costs money, so you would think it would be cheaper. The only thing I can think of is economies of scale. People buy so much white rice that it's produced on a much bigger scale, and people aren't going to buy overpriced rice. If more people bought brown rice then it would be as cheap, or maybe even cheaper, than white rice. Having said that, brown rice can still be cheaper than processed foods, as my comparison table shows. So, I think I am justified in saying that even poor people can buy brown rice.

Other issues that came up in the forum were availability of healthy food and the amount of time needed to prepare healthier foods. These are different issues from affordability, but they're not big problems. I have lived in different parts of London and different parts of England and I have never had a problem with availability. I have lived on council estates. Supermarkets and street markets have always been nearby. I'm sure that if you're a journalist and you can spare the time then you could find a housing estate in Britain where there aren't any supermarkets or street markets nearby, but to pretend that this is representative of how the majority of poor people live is wrong.

As for preparation time, I don't spend hours in the kitchen. I don't soak beans, but although it takes hours for them to soak, you don't need to stand over them while they're soaking. It takes only 15 minutes to cook rice or pasta. Same with lentils or frozen vegetables. You put them in a saucepan, pour on boiling water from the kettle, bring them to the boil and simmer. Pasta sauce and other sauces from a jar are cheap and aren't going to push up the cost of the meal a lot.

People tend to be cash rich and time poor, or time rich and cash poor. Either way you can eat healthy food. If you are cash poor and time poor then you've got a big problem. You have to work out for yourself what you're going to do about that one. But buying burgers and crisps is not the answer. Not only will you be making yourself ill, but you will be wasting your money.

If you wanted to cook elaborate dishes like macaroni cheese then it would take more time, but I don't bother with the complicated and less healthy stuff. If someone buys a cheap macaroni cheese from Iceland, they might think that it would cost more to buy a marginally more healthy one from Marks & Spencer. So what? They might think it would cost more to make one from scratch at home in their kitchen using marginally healthier ingredients, and take a lot more time. So what?

Pasta doesn't need to have cheese added to it. You can get a kilo of pasta for about 60p. It doesn't take much more money to make it palatable. A tomato-based pasta sauce is cheap and healthy. If you think about that then the £1 macaroni cheese doesn't seem so cheap.

If people insist on eating rich food full of cheese and butter and cream then they can do so. Or they can think about what poor people all over the world have been eating for thousands of years, a starchy staple with some pulses and lots of vegetables, flavoured with herbs and some spice. It's cheap, tasty and nutritious, and it doesn't result in ecological or animal welfare problems.

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