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The True Cost of Food

I buy organic produce and consume a plant-based diet. I don’t buy meat or dairy groceries though on rare occasions I might have them in a social situation. Buying organic might seem expensive if we only take into consideration the numeric cost of the food. However, food isn’t just calories so we have to take into consideration the true cost of food.

I’ll discuss how low we can get our grocery bills. I’ll discuss the healthcare costs involved with eating shitty food. I’ll also discuss my own average grocery spending.


Organic Spinach

I can buy organic spinach for about $2.00/lb. It usually comes in a 16 oz fresh bunch or frozen. Frozen spinach comes out to about $1.70/lb. Mass produced organic will obviously be less ideal than real-organic you get from a local farmer.

I have tried shopping at the farmer’s market in the past but the costs have been prohibitive. I’m told that there is a trick to it. Specifically, fruit is often much more expensive than vegetables.


Organic Beef

I looked up beef at my grocery store. It costs as little as $4.00/lb for the non-organic and $6.00/lb for the organic version. Same as produce, there is a huge difference from one “organic” item to another. What the animal is fed, whether it’s pasture-raised, whether it received antibiotics or hormones, and even what species of cattle.


Organic Wheat

I love pizza. But every time I go to buy pizza dough or a frozen one the ingredient list makes my head spin. Instead, I buy ground whole wheat berries and use my own sourdough starter with some water to make the pizza dough. It doesn’t get more whole-food than that. The ingredients are the entire wheat grain and water. No salt. No added yeast. No oil. No sugar.

Organic Hard Red Wheat Berry costs $1.50/lb in the bulk section of my store. I add my starter and filtered water to this and knead my dough. I should be able to get about 1,000 calories from 1 lb of organic wheat bread that I make at home. Regardless if it’s a pizza dough or a loaf of bread or a pita.


Organic Black Beans

The bulk section has organic black beans selling for $1.30/lb. Let’s say that I can get 450 calories from a pound of cooked organic beans. That’s about half of the calories from the beef or wheat. But, of course, it’s not so easy comparing these items to each other.


Calorie vs Weight

It’s hard to compare 1 lb of beef to 1 lb of spinach for obvious reasons. Spinach will have 96 calories per pound. Beef will have 10x that. But you don’t need 1,000 calories of spinach in your diet. And most of us definitely don’t need 1,000 calories of beef.

There are calculators out there and tons of pages have been written on how to standardize different foods for their caloric value, their cost, and their ANDI score. There are too many different ways of standardizing foods so I won’t get into that.

It makes sense to me to calculate the cost per calorie for the most common foods I consume. Based on this I can decide which item to buy and how much of it I can consume safely to still remain healthy.


Dietary Staples

For myself, I have whittled my dietary staples down to the following list. All are organic. I also list the cost per 100 calories in front of each item; from most expensive to least expensive.

  • frozen berries ($2.14 per 100 calories)
  • kale ($1.71 per 100 calories)
  • broccoli ($1.28 per 100 calories)
  • frozen spinach ($1.12 per 100 calories)
  • grapefruit ($1.04 per 100 calories)
  • apples ($0.70 per 100 calories)
  • oranges ($0.64 per 100 calories)
  • avocados ($0.63 per 100 calories)
  • sweet potato ($0.57 per 100 calories)
  • carrots ($0.52 per 100 calories)
  • almonds ($0.31 per 100 calories)
  • walnuts ($0.26 per 100 calories)
  • wheat ($0.09 per 100 calories)
  • beans ($0.08 per 100 calories)
  • brown rice ($0.07 per 100 calories)

What shocked me is that my prized avocados which I thought were a splurge are actually cheaper that the fruits I buy. Even cheaper than broccoli.

Here are some other ones for the sake of comparison:

  • McDonalds cheeseburger ($0.42 per 100 calories)
  • Chipotle vegetarian burrito ($0.65 per 100 calories)

The fast food items I sampled fall into the same price range as fruit. And are more expensive than organic walnuts and even organic potatoes. Even the pre-cooked or frozen versions of these items are similar to the cost of fast food.


Cutting the Cost of Food

Every person has a different flavor profile. Each individual also has other risk factors and personal health issues which mandate a particular diet. Narrowing this down to maybe 20 items will make life much easier.

Unlimited Budget

Even if you’re wealthy as shit and don’t need to budget, it makes sense to limit the food products you are willing to put into your body. Providing yourself with this kind of structure by limiting your options makes it more likely that you’ll make better food decisions.

Food Budgeting

To cut the cost of food you could calculate the cost per 100 calories and then create a list in descending order. In order to cut on your grocery bills simply start from the bottom of the list and work your way up.

The cost of non-organics is about half of the organics. So if you’re broke as a joke then you’ll still save more money buying items from the grocery list above as opposed to fast food. Until I did the math I didn’t realize that fast food was actually more expensive.

Food & Poverty

From what I understood in popular media is that poor people eat fast food because it’s cheaper and more accessible. The accessibility aspect I don’t know much about but the price difference seems rather obvy.

No doubt that a McDonald’s burger is far more satisfying than an apple or a banana. But that’s also a matter of taste which is something that can be programmed.

Sample Food Budget

I could be a rather healthy fella with the following food items. The chance of developing heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes, strokes, or high cholesterol from such a diet would be incredibly low.

  • brown rice
  • beans
  • potatoes
  • spinach
  • oranges

For a caloric need of 2,000 per day I could spend the following:

  • 500 calories from rice (= $0.35 per day)
  • 500 calories from potatoes (= $2.85 per day)
  • 500 calories from oranges (= $3.20 per day)
  • 450 calories from beans (= $0.36 per day)
  • 50 calories from spinach (= $0.56 per day)

It would come out to about $7.32 per day or $220/month. That’s for a single person. It’s still a lot of money but remember that everything is organic.


The True Cost of Food

The next level of this conversation is the true cost of food. I know that I would spend more money on kale compared to iceberg lettuce. Organic will cost twice as much as non-organic. Walnuts will be more expensive than peanuts. Brown rice > white rice. Avocado > mayonnaise. But there is a slightly higher health benefit for the added cost. Not always, but often.

The true cost of food isn’t only the sticker price but also the long-term effects on our health. The productivity lost from dealing with chronic disease is a growing problem in the US. I certainly don’t want to spend my life at a doctor’s office in my later years.

Healthcare Costs

I decided to talk about the true cost of food because built into the price of those $6/lb mushrooms are potential health benefits. I might spend an extra $100/month on groceries or maybe even $250. What does that translate to as far as the money I’ll save not being sick, not going to the doctor, not taking long-term medications, not developing chronic diseases such as cancer or heart disease.

We know that good food is good for health. But what is good food? I’m trying to learn that now with my health coaching business. It’s not clear-cut. There are a lot of observational studies and the majority of them have industry biases.

But I can’t imagine a person who eats a mostly whole plant based diet with no refined or processed foods and with very little animal products to have a poor health outcome.

Food Regulation

When I lived in Spain food was quite obviously of higher quality. It didn’t make much sense to buy organic – ecológico. Pesticide and food production is regulated strictly by the government. In Spain I can rely on the “system” and take the decision making burden off of my shoulders.

In the US farming is heavily subsidized. There are rules in place but they are rarely enforced. To comply with an “organic” designation requires a lot of capital expenditures but after that the farm might get away with a lot. Just because they are organic doesn’t mean that they are creating high quality produce.

Ingredients don’t have to be listed. Food manufacturing processes can be kept a secret. As a consumer in the US I have no clue as to what’s going on. I, therefore, have to be very selective with what I eat and where I obtain my groceries.

The Value of Time

There are two time factors when it comes to the true cost of food. One aspect of time is the minutes we spend bent over the counter preparing our food; from chopping to cooking to fermenting. The other time factor is the time we spend being productive or unproductive due to health issues. If you’re constantly having IBS flares, severe menstrual cramps, a depressed immune system, or going back and forth to your doctor to get to the bottom of your fatigue, you cannot be as productive. You’re expending far more energy and time to earn the same dollar as your colleague.

Healthier food, even if more costly, will make a difference. The added cost will be justified if the decision is a scientific one. At least that’s what I tell myself. That’s how I justify spending $350/month on groceries when I could be spending $150 for a single guy.


Investment Returns on Health

My securities portfolio might average an annual return of 6%, if all goes to plan. So $1,000 might become $1,060 after 1 year. Not bad especially when this compounds long-term. But my return on investment with a healthier diet is far higher than that. I could spend $10k a year on health from age 65 to 90 or I could spend damn near nothing. If you believe that a healthy lifestyle can prevent disease then $350/month on groceries is a great investment.

Investment Cliff

you can’t extrapolate this too much – you will eventually hit an investment cliff of diminishing returns. You’re not going to be healthier if you keep spending more on your groceries. In fact, there is probably a very thin line which if crossed will result in worse health outcomes.

I’m talking about buying a lot of processed shit. Whey protein. Supplements. Algae powdr. Shark cartilage soup. It’s unlikely that the person who does daily valerian root enemas is going to be that much healthier than the person who eats a healthy balanced diet.

I’m assured by the supplement industry that everyone must be on a multivitamin to be healthy. I’m holding out. I haven’t seen it return much for my patients so I’ll happily invest in Herbalife as a stock but not going to be a customer anytime soon.

2 replies on “The True Cost of Food”

i wish i could do RCTs on humans on this topic. and prevent crossover. i suppose i also wish i were a trillionnaire. alas, mouse studies is what we’ve got …

As a family, we eat almost exclusively a whole food plant based vegan diet. Mostly organic, especially when it comes to the EWG dirty dozen as well as soy, wheat, corn, and rice. I’ll let things like avocados and bananas slide because they have a peel.

The food quality in Europe is way better compared to the United States. Pasta in Italy taste better, probably because of the non-GMO wheat. Produce in France and Spain is so much better as well.

Now that Monsanto was bought by Bayer (an EU corporation), regulations in the EU may become more relaxed and therefore pesticides and herbicides like LibertyLink may be in greater use throughout Europe. If that becomes the case, then I would buy organic /ecologica / biologique in Europe too.

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