It is a common belief in some circles that a healthy diet is unaffordable. Last year, the chair of the Royal College of GPs said fruit and vegetables were so expensive that it was unrealistic to expect people on low incomes to eat their five-a-day. As five-a-day morphs into ten-a-day, the Food Foundation said at the weekend that people on low incomes would find it ‘impossible’ to eat 10 portions of fruit and vegetables. Meanwhile, fast food chains like McDonald’s are blamed for filling our stomachs with ‘cheap junk food’ and there are growing calls for taxes on ‘unhealthy’ food to address the supposed imbalance between expensive good food and inexpensive bad food.
These beliefs have never been supported by much evidence, however. The Food Foundation says that ‘healthy foods are three times more expensive calorie for calorie than unhealthy foods’, but measuring the cost of food by the calorie — as some studies do — tells us nothing about the price of a healthy diet. By this measure, a low-calorie yoghurt would appear more expensive than a high-calorie yoghurt despite both products costing 50p each. You’d obviously need to buy more of the low-calorie yoghurts if you wanted to consume 1,000 calories, but that is not a useful measure in modern Britain where consuming enough calories to survive is not the problem. For most people, the challenge is to consume fewer of them.
The real question, therefore, is whether it is cheaper to live off processed food and takeaways than to eat a nutritious, balanced diet. The government’s Eatwell Guide recommends a diet that is heavy on fruit, vegetables, starchy carbohydrates and white meat. All of these can be bought from supermarkets at prices that would have amazed your grandparents. As I show in a new report from the Institute of Economic Affairs, rice, potatoes and pasta can be bought for less than 5p per serving. Grapes, oranges and bananas cost less than 30p per serving and apples and pears can be bought for less than 10p. An 80 gram serving of carrots, tinned tomatoes, peas or cabbage costs less than 8p.
All told, it is possible to have your five-a-day for less than 30p and a nutritious, if plain, diet can be bought for less than £1 a day. Add some muesli, bread, chicken fillets, fish and jam, and you can have a tastier and more varied diet for less than £2 a day.
Compare that to the cost of ‘junk food’. Chocolate breakfast cereals are twice as expensive as bran flakes or muesli. The cheapest own-brand ready-meals cost at least £1 each. Sugary snacks are almost invariably more expensive than apples or pears. An 80 gram serving of crisps is four times more expensive than an 80 gram portion of banana or broccoli, and sugary drinks are not only more expensive than water but are often more expensive than low-calorie soft drinks such as diet lemonade and sugar-free orange squash.
Furthermore, if you compare the diet version of products to their originals, they are usually the same price or less. Brown bread costs the same as white bread, light baked beans cost the same as standard baked beans, light mayonnaise costs the same as full-fat mayonnaise, skimmed milk costs the same as whole milk, and so on. You cannot blame financial constraints on people’s reluctance to buy them.
And it should go without saying that buying the ingredients for a healthy meal costs less than going to a fast food chain. The cheapest adult meal in McDonald’s costs around £4.50. A single meal for a family of four costs the best part of twenty quid.
This is not to say that a bad diet has to be expensive. If you want to live off frozen pizzas, chips and sausages you can do so for a relative pittance. Food, in general, has never been cheaper. But a diet of stereotypical ‘junk food’ is not cheaper than a healthy diet and is usually more expensive.
Unless you have servants to do your shopping, this probably seems obvious. The theory that Britain has high rates of obesity because healthy food is unaffordable is flawed on every level. It does not explain why obesity has increased while food prices have fallen to historic lows, nor does it explain why obesity rates are higher in rich countries than in poor countries. It does not explain why people fail to buy more fruit and vegetables when they become richer and it does not explain the high rate of obesity among people on middle and high incomes.
Why, then, do so many take the lazy assumption that healthy food is expensive at face value? In part, it is because some health campaigners want to portray obesity as an economically driven phenomenon in order to justify taxes and subsidies on food, but there are other reasons. According to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research, people assume that expensive food products are healthier even when they are not. The mere existence of a price premium seems to imply health benefits to some consumers. Organic and gluten-free food, in particular, are assumed to be healthier as a result of their price and because of the exaggerated claims made on their behalf.
The chef Anthony Warner argues that fad diets and wellness gurus ‘focus almost solely on exclusive, exotic ingredients’ such as quinoa and chia seeds at the expense of ‘cheap, easily consumed sources of valuable nutrition like carrots, potatoes, bread and cheese’. If you assume that ‘healthy’ means organic, imported or gluten-free then you will end up spending more money but there are plenty of unpretentious, nutritious fruits and vegetables available on supermarket shelves for next-to-nothing.
Meanwhile, ‘cheap junk food’ is not so cheap, in relative terms. The appeal of Big Macs, ready meals, frozen pizzas and chocolate fudge cake is not that they are cheap but that they are tasty, convenient and require no cooking skills. These are things that people are prepared to pay a premium for — and they do. Price is not unimportant, but if it was the main determinant of dietary choices, we would all be eating ten-a-day.