Now You’ve Got No Excuse: Government Report Shows Healthy Food Doesn’t Cost More Than Junk Food

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Sure, I’d eat better—if only healthy food didn’t cost so darn much. Does this excuse sound familiar? Well, you can’t get away with using it any longer. The truth, according to a new government study, is something that many consumers concerned about both nutrition and money have proclaimed for years: Healthy food isn’t expensive. Or at least it doesn’t have to be.

The study, from the USDA’s Economic Research Service, points out that one way researchers in the past have figured out which foods provide the most bang for the buck is flawed:

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

On the other hand, foods that are high in sugar and saturated fats tend to provide more calories per dollar, making it look like they’re providing more energy—for less money. When average portion size is factored in, though, a much different conclusion is reached:

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.

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Few Americans need to be worried about getting enough calories in their diet—the opposite concern is more typical—and so there’s little need to focus on the price-per-calorie ratio. For example, if you were trying to figure out which milk was the best buy using the price-per-calorie metric, whole milk would win out easily. It has roughly twice the calories of skim milk, and the two products cost about the same, so the price per calories is much “cheaper” with whole milk. Which product do health experts recommend? Skim milk, which is better for you, and again, costs roughly the same as whole milk.

Instead of figuring out the price per calorie, it makes more sense to look at the total costs and total amounts of food consumed. Consider the choice of eating broccoli or potato chips. Not what you want to eat, but what you should eat—and which offers better value. When viewed in terms of the price per calorie, potato chips are cheaper. A one-ounce bag of chips has about 150 calories. To get that many calories from broccoli, you’d have to eat more about three cups, and such an amount would cost more than the bag of chips. A typical serving size of broccoli, though, is half a cup, or 27 calories. When comparing the price of typical service to typical serving size regardless of calories, broccoli winds up being cheaper.

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The same goes for most fruits and vegetables: When looking at their price per portion—rather than price per calorie—they’re almost always cheaper than less healthy foods. As for the cheapest foods overall, the USDA’s researchers name the usual suspects, including pastas, rice, breads, and other grains, all of which are considered healthy.

Considering his spectrum of upscale restaurants, celebrity chef Mario Batali probably isn’t the first name to come to mind in terms of insight on eating a healthy diet without breaking the bank. But Batali and his family are now participating in a Food Stamp Challenge, in which their food budget is capped at $31 per person per week.

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Here’s part of his family’s approach to getting by:

Instead of eating expensive items such as filet mignon or truffle oil, he chooses beans, rice, chicken, and pasta. He said he quickly learned that not buying organic could cut the price of produce by 50 percent. As for his kids, they’re eating plenty of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches right now.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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