Are Fresh, Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? Here’s Our Breakdown

These days, there are a lot of opinions and questions about how to eat healthy, where to get your food, and whether eating more nutritiously costs more than indulging in the abundance of processed junk foods that seem to be everywhere in our food distribution system.

There are a lot of issues coming up around our food sources — from looking at public health and safety to economic concerns.

But is healthy food really more expensive to buy? This is one of the big questions that’s governing how families make the most of their resources, and how they do their food shopping. Here’s what we found.

Different Measurements

One of the biggest things that you have to keep in mind with fresh versus processed foods is there are differences in values.

The USDA provides resources that track food prices in different ways. One is to break down the price per calorie. Here, you’re looking at just how much raw energy you can get from a certain amount of food that’s priced a certain way.

When you look at price per calorie, what you find is that the high-protein foods, and those with high fat and sugar levels are going to be cheaper in terms of getting more calories for your money.

Items like fresh produce, for example, celery or carrots, are not going to be providing the same kinds of cheap calories, because there are so few calories in these foods.

On the other hand, when you look at the fresh foods and whole foods versus the canned processed and prepared foods, what you find is that the fresh, healthy whole foods are usually cheaper by the gram. They’re cheaper in terms of food weight.

How does this help you make a decision?

When you think about it, in eating healthy, you’re not looking for massive amounts of calories. You’re looking for healthy things like plant sterols, antioxidants, and healthy proteins. So that’s a good argument for buying healthier food, because it’s generally cheaper by weight or by portion than processed and prepared options.

It makes sense that fresh whole foods are cheaper because the seller doesn’t have to bear the cost of processing. In many cases, food companies lean toward creating food that’s essentially “made in a factory” so that the buyer doesn’t have to put nearly as much time into prep. But every step that food takes on its way to your plate makes it less fresh, and now many modern families who aren’t afraid of a little hard work are choosing to source foods that are straight from the farm, to benefit from a healthier grocery list.

Time Costs

One of the biggest factors in making choices about household grocery budgets involves one of our most precious resources — time.

So many times, those who are in charge of feeding families buy more expensive prepared and processed foods simply because they lack the time to prepare fresh foods and make them presentable for meals.

This is a big challenge — think about the person who’s commuting home from a full day of work, trying to get dinner on the table within an hour or less.

There is the overwhelming temptation to pay a few dollars more for food that’s quick and easy to eat.

On the other hand, there are a lot of easy hacks that can help families get around this problem.

One is to prepare at the time of purchase — go out and buy a certain amount of less perishable foods on Sunday, and cut them up and bag them up for use during the week. This way, it’s relatively easy to put together meals of fresh vegetables and simple starches, along with a tasty sauce and a source of protein and have that available to quickly heat up and eat for dinner on a weekday.

Another incredible grocery hack is to freeze produce and fresh foods. You end up throwing less away and getting more out of every purchase. In fact, things like temperature control in food handling can make all of the difference in how much of your purchased fresh foods you are able to use.

So even though some may think they don’t have time to eat better, a lot of the challenges can be overcome by better organization.

The Long Term Cost of Eating Poorly

What many people don’t factor into their calculations is the long-term costs of indulging in high-fat, high sugar processed foods.

However, people in the healthcare and insurance industries see this clearly.

They understand that by shaving a few dollars off of your grocery budget, you’re opening yourself up to serious health problems down the road, problems that might require expensive care and extensive treatment. 

Doctors and nurses are talking a lot about this dangerous link between saving a few dollars on processed food and dealing with diseases like diabetes and heart disease over time. Even tax prep companies are noticing this economic cause and effect – this guide from H&R Block looks at how your diet will eventually affect your pocketbook.

With all that in mind, fresh food is clearly the way to go. In some cases, it may cost a few more dollars, or take a little more time, but in general, you’ll almost always get the most value out of simple foods that come straight from a garden, orchard, pasture or ocean.

Even when you pay extra for organics, many of these foods will still be cheaper as whole foods than as processed foods like soups, pre-made salads, or frozen meals.

Take control of your health and your finances, and figure out ways to make healthy food pay.