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Cost of junk food versus cost of healthy food

September 26, 2011

I love to cook, and food fascinates me.  I enjoy perusing everything from cooking techniques, to nutritional content, to the economics of agriculture and the grocery and restaurant industries.  This past weekend’s New York Times Sunday Review  ran an article by Mark Bittman entitled Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?  The article comes to the same conclusion that I reached decades ago: in general fast food is expensive, and in fact, it’s usually more expensive than healthier food.

The advantages of fast food, and to me they are dubious advantages at best, are convenience and uniformity.  When you buy a Big Mac you can drive your car to a drive-in window, snarf the thing down in the car, and relegate the packaging to a landfill.  You can also be reasonably certain that the Big Mac you purchase in Sheboygan will have the same taste and texture as one you would buy in Pensacola.  It’s engineered that way.

The NYT article is correct in it’s conclusion  that fast food is not cheaper.  In fact, the main factor driving the price of food for a family isn’t whether it’s fast food or healthy food, but how much of their food is prepared at home, and how much is eaten out.

Often when people argue that fast food is cheaper, they compare the cost of a Happy Meal with the cost of organic vegetables purchased at Whole Foods (and one person with whom I was discussing the issue chose the cost of red bell pepper, a relatively expensive vegetable, at Whole Foods, a relatively expensive store, for comparison)..  This is a false comparison.  Even if you confine the definition of “healthy” to organic produce (which I don’t accept, because a conventionally grown cabbage is still going to be healthier than an order of fast food french fries) most regions have less expensive alternatives to Whole Foods.  For instance, here in Atlanta the Dekalb Farmer’s Market has very reasonably priced organic produce.

Junk-food-is-cheaper advocates  also appeal to cost-per-calorie as an argument.  That argument is easy to shoot down.   I can pile vegetable oil  or margerine on a serving of beans or cabbage (both cheap foods) and drive the calorie count through the roof.

So why do people continue to eat fast food?

There are several the basic reasons:

1) humans crave high calories for genetic reasons.  Those reasons have changed from necessary to pernicious, since we’re not in a desperate hunter-gatherer struggle for enough calories to survive, but the urges are still with us.  Fast food has concentrated calories.

2) Fast foods are convenient.  Cooking takes time, effort, and knowledge.  Driving up to a drive-in window is fast, easy, and requires few skills beyond the ability to drive and open the driver’s side window.

3) Fast foods are engineered for appealing taste and texture, and uniformity.

4) Marketing and advertising hooks consumers in to fast food at a really early age.  A balanced meal containing adequate servings of vegetables can’t compete with Ronald McDonald.

In summation, the best way to save money on food is to cook at home.  Healthy eating is a separate issue.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2011 6:57 pm

    Great article! My husband and I are trying to give up on fast food and processed foods and eat more of a whole foods diet. With the rise of diabetes and other health concerns we are trying to teach our children at a young age how to take care of there bodies while they are young so they can live a long and healthy life. Again, I enjoyed your article. Thank you =)

    • September 26, 2011 7:09 pm

      Thanks! Although I occasionally splurge on some awful snack food I enjoyed as a child, my diet (and that of my wife) has for the most part consisted of whole grains, vegetables and fruits, protein from plant sources, and other meals made from basic ingredients as close to their original state as is practical. The best way to do this in a cost effective manner is to cook at home as much as possible. I hope your children take the lessons you are teaching them to heart.

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