The Real Cost of Cheap Food

I put this picture up on my Facebook page over the weekend and then decided I also wanted to blog about it because this is so important.

This bread was on sale at Wal-Mart for $1.08 a loaf. Out of curiosity I picked it up and looked at the back of the package. As you can see, the list of ingredients is long. There is high fructose corn syrup, a lot of preservatives, and added vitamins.

There is also less than a gram of fiber in two slices of the bread.

There is a cost to all of us in cheap food. And I’m not just talked the dollars we spend, but the cheapness of the ingredients that are used by many food companies.

Michael Pollan, author of several books includingThe Omnivore’s Dilemma says:

“Cheap food is an illusion. There is no such thing as cheap food. The real cost of the food is paid somewhere. And if it isn’t paid at the cash register, it’s charged to the environment or to the public purse in the form of subsidies. And it’s charged to your health.”

That last sentence he writes is what I wanted to open up a discussion about today. The cost of cheap food is charged to our health. It is charged to our children’s health. It is charged to every person in the country.

That bread loaf in Wal-Mart is just one of thousands of “cheap” foods gracing the shelves of our grocery stores today. These foods are full of unnatural additives (no matter if they throw the word “natural” in front of them), GMO’s, and unhealthy but “cheap” corn syrup. The manufacturing process strips out the majority of vitamins and fiber from natural wheat and then they add some back in. And they don’t just use the stripped flour for bread – it is in a plethora of foods both in grocery stores and in restaurants.

The cheapness comes at a cost. Obesity rates are rampant, we don’t know why young women are suddenly seeing significantly increased risks of advanced breast cancer, diabetes rates have skyrocketed, and 67 million people have high blood pressure.

The average American family spent about 9.8 percent of their disposable income on food in 2011, according to the USDA. Of that, 5.7 percent was spent on food at home, and 4.1 was spent on food away from home. A lot of people tell me they cannot afford to eat healthier foods and I believe them. However, there are some people who say that but also spend almost half of their food budget on restaurant meals, which are rarely healthy.

What if Americans took money away from those restaurant meals and put it towards buying healthier options in the grocery store? They could also learn how to save money by preparing more meals from scratch and stretching foods to last longer.

But before any of that can happen, people need to believe that cheap food does come at a cost to their health, to our economy, and even to their lives.

What do you think? Do you believe there is a cost to cheap food? Diane

71 thoughts on “The Real Cost of Cheap Food

  1. Joy says:

    I saw your post of fb about the bread and it stayed with me when I was grocery shopping. I had an aha moment about all the cheap and crappy food out there and I do think we should eat more real food. It is just sad how a lot of organic food is expensive but your right in the long run your health comes first.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      You don’t have to buy organic if you can’t afford it or can’t find it. We have very little options for organic produce/meat here so I just do the best I can. I focus on avoiding the processed junk and buying quality ingredients. You know?

  2. Deb says:

    This goes back to the post about fat children. A lot of people no longer know how to cook from scratch or they work long hours and simply don’t have time for it. Access to grocery stores is also a problem in many areas. Are you going to watch A Place at the Table?

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Yes. I’m going to watch it. A lot of people really do not know how to cook and what they call cooking is really just opening cans and boxes rather than actual cooking.

  3. vickie says:

    When I was first starting out (losing weight and eating healthier) I played the grocery cart game with myself. I would finish my shopping, pull my cart over, out of the way, and go back through to see what was not really food. In the beginning, a lot of it was not really food. I would go put those things back, try again, reexamine again, and then check out my groceries. As time went on, I got better and better at buying real food.

    As I shop, and glance into other shopper’s carts, there is a LOT of non-food in those carts. And that non-food totals out at a lot of money.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Those non-food items are very costly Vickie. I recommend the same “analyzing your cart” technique to people who are new at healthy food shopping because a lot of times we pick up foods from habit or inattention. Those foods are sometimes ones we don’t need in the first place.

  4. Karla says:

    Diane, I am a grocery store manager, we are super busy when EBT cards load (food stamps) I see these folks come in and they only have so much money on their EBT cards and they have a family to feel. Now of course there are those that abuse the system….. I am not talking about those people. The regular EBT user, they buy what they can afford.. And big business understands this and caters to them. Frozen TV dinners, pot pies, box diners, $1 a loaf bread just like you talk about… For them, it is about survival. Unfortunately it is also about educating them to know healthy vs unhealthy. WIC just changed about a year ago to include fruits and vegetables and healthy grains…. Do you know when they changed there was NO bread a WIC customer could buy!!!! The companies had to scramble to make a 16 oz bread that was 100% whole wheat.. That is just shameful …… It is about supply and demand. We need to educate people to understand what foods are healthy vs unhealthy. I am SHOCKED at what some shoppers believe to be “healthy” I could go on and on……

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Wow Karla. Thank you so much for sharing that information with all of us. It makes me sad that there was no bread that a WIC customer could buy at first because no bread met the guidelines. That’s just shameful on the companies who are making the bread. They care about the almighty dollar more than the consumer.

      Every single time I do a “nutrition” talk rather than a weight loss talk I have “educated” people come up to me afterwards and say, “I had no idea about processed foods.” Even some people who have the means to learn about nutrition don’t because they “trust” that food manufacturers have their nutritional interest at heart.

  5. Dr. J says:

    It’s a matter of priority. Many of the items that are healthy for us are expensive at the time of purchase. With effort it’s possible to improve our buying power, ie coupons, using stores with cement floors :-), farmer’s markets, growing our own, bulk purchasing, etc, but the initial costs will still seem higher than the easier, less healthy way. Looking to the future is a good idea.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Very true. The positive thing about priorities is that they can change. I know when I was obese my priority was large quantities of food without regard for nutrition. Over time my priorities changed and continue to evolve.

  6. Gwen /Sunny says:

    Even ‘healthy wheat’ is not anywhere near as healthy as it used to be. It’s been so hybridized and treated that it’s no longer ‘amber waves of grain’: it’s short, stubby little stalks that are chemically sprayed to the max…so it grows faster, cheaper, and can be mass produced. Even the USDA’s old pyramid which places grains as its based hasn’t been tested scientifically for it’s safety on humans! The food and restaurant industries have conducted studies on the brain chemistry effect of salt/fat/sugar, especially in combination, and by design glob these 3 items on as much of their foods as they can because of their chemical addictive traits, which means MO MONEY for these corporations. It’s all atrocious, and people need to research more to become not only wiser consumers, but better advocates for their own health. This is a super hot topic for me now.

    Thanks for this post, Diane. It can’t be mentioned enough!

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      The wheat we buy is organic which helps, but I’m sure it has less nutrients than the wheat the first settlers to America had to eat.

      I think the food pyramid and many of the recommendations from the government are largely driven by lobby dollars and not the health of citizens. That’s why we have to be our own best advocates.

  7. Contemplaive Fitness says:

    I think people do understand the costs of cheap food, but do so on a visceral level, and largely block it out — kind of like sexual abuse. That’s a bold statement I know, and will likely offend some, but I believe it’s valid.

    All one needs to do is turn their head 360 degrees to see how we, as a society, block out the ugly, and ignore our problems — as those problems increase in size and complexity.

    • Jane says:

      I agree with this statement completely. Many of us block out the acknowledgement of what the food it doing to the body – exactly like we block out traumatic events as a coping mechanism that really only makes things worse.

  8. Jody - Fit at 55 says:

    YES is my simple answer! I see these list of ingredients too ob bread & simple food – It is crazy! People are still not educated on this too as much as the info is out there – scary!

  9. Joe says:

    Without a doubt we pay the price later for “cheap food”. If we stop paying for $5 drinks at Starbucks and stop going out to eat all the time we could invest in quality foods. A $5 loaf of bread may seem pricey but chances are that bread only has a handful of ingredients. Having fewer health issues down the road is the ultimate investment!

  10. Caron says:

    I am currently watching a documentary called Hungry for Change which is eye opening to say the least. I try to stay away from most of the center aisles at the grocery store except for the ones that have canned vegetables, rice, oatmeal and condiments like mustard and hot sauce. I do buy bread and am fortunate that right now I can afford the Ezekiel bread. I understand the problems the very poor face and why they buy the cheap, “food-like” products trying to get the most for their money. I have been in their shoes and have no illusions that I won’t be again.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I understand the dilemma too and it saddens me.

      This is the honest truth: Every time I check out in the grocery store I say a silent prayer of thanks that for this week we have enough to feed our family healthy foods. I am grateful and never want to feel smug or complacent.

  11. L says:

    I have thought for a long time now that you can pay now, or pay later. The later payment comes in the form of health dilemas. I should know. I ate attrociously for years and am only now starting to come out of that unhealthy way of life. I am scrambling to deal with health issues that came from that kind of eating. I’m hopeful that they will be diminished by eating right and yes, paying more for my food. Here’s the thing though, my body can no longer function of that junk. Its either eat better or die, and I’m not kidding about that. I believe Americans are starving themselves to death, even as they are carrying around huge loads of excess fat. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. Time to do something else.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I ate badly too. I hope you will see an improvement in health issues you have now that you are working on eating a healthier diet. Your last couple of sentences are very compelling. . . Lots of food for thought right there.

  12. Alejandra @ wishfulshrinking says:

    While it absolutely looks daunting to see the costs associated with real food, with organic vegetables and fruit, and with raw meats and fish, it is worth it to your body and eventually your bank account. I will admit, when I overhauled my pantry and fridge, my first grocery bill hurt. But once you get your staples in, my grocery bill happens to be a little less every week. I don’t need cheap, weird “bread” to stay within budget. Making my own breakfast, lunch and dinner, saves me money and inches on my waistline than if I were to run down to the food court and grab what MIGHT be “healthy”. And really- $10 for a food court salad when I can make my own for a lot less? Come on.
    While there seems to be a clean eating uprising, there are still a ton of uneducated and/or impoverished people that need help and resources. Vegetables should never be less affordable than frankenbread.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I completely agree. Getting the staples in place can put a pinch in your budget. It is fine to do it gradually. I know that’s what worked for me and I’m still learning. Thanks for your insight!

  13. Janis says:

    YES. I recall driving by a billboard for something like “50 McNuggets for $10.99!” or some similar offense to the known universe.

    Anything that can be mass-produced at 50 for 11 bucks is nothing you should be putting in your MOUTH. You wouldn’t put a 50-cent contact lens in your eye, but we put this junk in our MOUTHS? YIKES! You could literally eat a bug and it would be better for you.

  14. Janis says:

    You know, I need to go home and look at the whole wheat bread I bought in the supermarket yesterday now. 🙁 I either have to start buying this Ezekiel whatever that people talk about, or else I have to start making it. It’s just that I can’t eat a whole loaf of homemade bread before it goes bad.

    Damn it.

    • Dr. J says:

      Look for an actual bakery in your area. Years ago on a drive along Highway One I stopped at a small bakery in Santa Cruz. The bread was so good that I decided if I ever moved to California, Santa Cruz was my choice, lol!

  15. Jill @ a Girl in Progress says:

    Great and very truthful post, Diane! I was just thinking to myself about that last night. We were in the grocery store. I had purchased some apples for $1.69/lb. Next to the check-out counter was a box of Little Debbie snack cakes for $1.69. There were probably 8 or 10 in the box. That is a whole lot more food (in terms of servings) than I was able to buy for the apples. On first glace, most healthy foods do appear to be more expensive, but you’re right. If a family were to think in terms of economics and purchase the snack cakes over the apples, the long term cost to their family’s health would be huge! Additionally, if you purhcase healthy produce and use it to make a number of salads, in recipies and as snacks, that produce stretches a lot further. People just have to be willing to invest a little time in preparing it so they can easily grab what they need when in a hurry.

    In terms of our low income population, we have to consider their dilemna as well. I have volunteered a couple of times at my local food pantry and noticed how the largest majority of food donated to pantries from grocery stores, restaurants and individual donors is unhealthy convenience foods. Our food pantry gets so much “sugary cereal” donated to them, they actually have a sign indicating where it is located in their massive warehouse. What is a low income individual to do when poor quality foods like this are all they have to chose from at the pantry?

    I will stick to Ezekiel break for sure. Again, great post.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I’m a big advocate of stretching my food dollar just as you described. We do it with fruit, with meats, and of course with vegetables.

      I often notice people’s carts just like I’m sure they notice mine. I feel sad in a way because their carts look just like mine did when I was struggling with obesity. When I was heavy I never read a food label and never, never gave much thought to what was in the food or how it could impact my family’s health in the long run.

      The low income population is a huge concern. There have been studies showing the concentration of fast food restaurants being extraordinarily high around low income neighborhoods and grocery stores being more scare. That is a terrible situation for those folks who live in those areas.

  16. Mary Ellen Quigley says:

    I try to be as healthy with my grocery purchases as possible. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of money. I tend to have about $50-$70 every two weeks for two people. It isn’t much, but it’s all we can afford (medical bills are killing us right now). I do spend more on organic meat and produce, but that means things like bread and cereal take the back burner. We also eat less of those things because of that. Eventually the bills will be paid off and I can buy better food. Until then, the over processed crap will have to do. I’m sure many other people are in the same boat. The key is that I know the difference. Many people do not and buy bad stuff out of ignorance.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      It sounds like you are doing a great job of balancing money and healthier choices. I respect you for really thinking your purchases through and making the best choices you can for your family and still staying within your budget. That says a lot for you. 🙂

  17. Quix says:

    I spend a lot of money on healthy groceries (~150 per week on 2 people), but I save money on not going out very much anymore, so it works out. I haven’t (knock on wood) been sick in 15 months, so I’m also saving money there. 🙂

  18. Janis says:

    I know this is off-topic — sorry — but I’m still thinking about the post you wrote a bit ago on “naturally thin” people and some habits that might be good for “naturally heavy” folks to emulate.

    I’m thinking of some of the things we do that might not be good for folks who tend to overeat. I’ve encountered more than a few “naturally thin” people who do things (that I do) that are probably a bad idea for people who think about food a lot. I hate breakfast and generally skip it. I also bolt my food and eat very quickly, since I usually want to get it over with so I can get back to whatever it was I was doing before I had to stop and eat.

    There are just some behavioral things we can get away with since we’re not as likely to overeat in response to hunger, and we’re more sensitive to satiety signals. Those are habits of some “naturally thin” people that “naturally heavy” people would probably do well not to emulate.

    Anyhow, back to the topic … I think I might be able to manage with homemade bread if I slice up one of the two loaves as it comes out of the oven, wrap the slices, and freeze them. One I can eat as the week goes by, and the other will be in the freezer so it doesn’t go moldy on me. Preservatives aren’t the best thing for us, but they sure are convenient sometimes. 🙁

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I freeze my bread Janis because I make 5 or 6 loaves at a time and it would be stale by the time we got around to eating it. I double wrap it in plastic wrap and then wrap it in aluminum foil to help keep it fresh.

      • Janis says:

        I’ll try that. I’d love to put the slices in something like ziplocs that I could then reuse, but homemade bread slices are the wrong shape for those things.

        Blast it, I have to travel next week, or else I’d make two loaves of whole wheat this weekend!

  19. Amy Marie says:

    Good point!!! Do you buy in bulk, Diane?? I’m finding it a LITTLE challenging as I revamp our shopping to healthier options like nuts, Greek yogurt, frozen/fresh fruits etc…with a bigger family? My hubby and I were talking about looking more to our little Amish bulk stores and co-ops and bent n dent type stores for things like brown rice, coconut oil etc…we already buy ww flour & oatmeal & yeast from these, but ??? Also do you think milk is super important? We are spending A LOT on milk…how ’bout cheese?

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      We do buy in bulk for staples and Sam’s Club is our primary grocery store! We buy our bulk stapes from a natural food co-op that delivers to our area once a month. We don’t drink a lot of milk except with cereal. The kids have water with meals. I only use cheese in a recipe or two and don’t serve cheddar cheese as a snack with cheese and crackers or anything like that. However, my kids do eat the low-fat cheese mozzarella cheese sticks sometimes.

      In our town the Farmer’s Market is a great option for milk and farm-raised meats in addition to veggies. Do you have that option?

  20. Andrea@WellnessNotes says:

    Yes, I absolutely think we’ll have to “pay” for cheap food in one way or another. Quality food is very important to me, and it does cost more, but there are ways to make it more affordable. We have stopped going out to eat except for very rare occasions (no more than once per month). I also make all our meals from scratch. I dedicate one day on the weekend as my “cook day” and make some protein, a big pot of soup, beans, roasted veggies, a grain dish and prep lots of fruits and veggies so that they are easy to grab. I use the precooked items to quickly put dinners together during the week.

  21. jeanette says:

    So glad we grind and make our own organic whole w heat bread…. I haven’t bought bread to eat in years and our health is positive proof. We havent been sick in years either. The advantage is that it is so cheap to make. A 50 pound bag of ORGANIC whole wheat kernels is 37 bucks and will last for 3-6 months making ALL our baked goods from it…(cinnamon rolls, pizza dough, pancakes, etc.)… I have heard the “I don’t have the time” spiel many times and really it is all about priorities. I am a busy homeschooling mom with lots of chores on my farm but can take 90 minutes to make bread for my family to last a week.
    Viva la good health!!!

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Amen Jeanette! We do the same thing and it is very cost effective to make your own bread. Not to mention how tasty and good for you it is. My kids complain if I buy a loaf here or there!

  22. Siobhan says:

    Definitely we pay now or later. I think it’s a function of lack of education, cost and convenience. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people say they are serving this or that Mcfood because it’s easy. Or it’s the only things their kids will.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I’ve heard the same kinds of comments more times than I can count. I understand the need for quickness, but I also know I can prepare a healthy meal from start to finish faster than I can load everyone in the van, drive to the restaurant, place our orders, eat, drive home. I also save loads of money not eating out.

  23. Jen says:

    While eating cheap unhealthy food certainly takes a role on our health in the long run, I believe there are plenty of cheap healthy foods that more people need to be made aware of. Also I would highly recommend watching the documentary Food Inc. If you haven’t seen it!

  24. julie says:

    The only cheap food I’m forced to eat is at my parents’ house, but even that’s changing. I live 1000 miles away, but my sister lives nearby, and forces my parents to buy organic milk, humanely raised turkey for Thanksgiving, better quality stuff in general, or she won’t let her boy eat there. My parents think it’s the dumbest, but are learning to do it anyway. I get some attitude about my citrus habit, especially the $1 grapefruit. Sure, I can find them cheaper, but they don’t taste as good, btw, how much did you pay for that coffee you’re drinking? Priorities, as others have pointed out. Many seem to think I enjoy shopping at FM, but no. I have to get up at 7am on a Saturday, drive over the bridge, deal with crappy traffic and the need to park semi-legally, crowds, etc. I do it because the food is worth it. Many seem to find this very strange.
    And I never buy anything without looking at the ingredients. I don’t mind a little sugar, but too many preservatives creep me out. Another thing I hear for why people don’t eat produce and fresh foods is that it goes bad. True, you have to make it a point to eat it, or find a way to store it. I keep bread, cheese, cooked mushrooms, cooked bacon, extra sauce and marinade, etc., in the freezer. It gets easier to prep your own food, and it’s hard to imagine going back to full-time takeout. And it’s so much cheaper, though a lot more effort (at least for someone picky like me).

  25. Fiona Jesse Giffords says:

    Looking cheap foods to adjust with our cost management, we often risk our health. Rather than going for restaurants many times a month we can go for healthy eating habits at home.

  26. Tanvee says:

    Hi Diane, I think it’s more about making a choice and prioritising, if healthy food is slightly more expensive I cut down on my eat outs, take outs and other unhealthy stuff (drinks, soda..). Plus I think l have a choice of spending a little more on eating healthy or spending a lot more on my health later…

  27. Margaret@WellnessCircle says:

    We can’t deny that this kind of strategy is enticing and effective at the same time. But, thanks for sharing this, people are now more aware and conscious on what are they putting in their cart. I understand food companies though, because business is business. And this serves as a lesson for all of us.

    Health is Wealth! 🙂

  28. Chris says:

    I don’t buy the cheap stuff anymore for exactly that reason. You (or somebody) has to pay at some point along the line. Most of the time, it’s me with poor health because it’s absolutely garbage food!

    I’m not perfect, but as close to natural as I can get now… I have my own garden and am now working towards being fairly well self sustained for fruit and veges 🙂 It’s hard work though!

  29. Paige says:

    I think it is really hard for many individuals to make healthy decisions when grocery shopping. Firstly, there are many options which are just straight up tempting – you know that a bag of Sour Patch Kids isn’t healthy for you, but they taste so delicious! This is a more obvious problem. However, as you allude to in your blog post, it becomes even trickier when consumers aren’t necessarily making informed choices. They think they’re just buying a loaf of bread – that doesn’t feel like an “unhealthy option” (especially compared to the other foods/snacks they could be buying instead. Add to this dilema the fact that many low income individuals have a very tight groceries budget to work within and things get even more complicated; in the US poverty is correlated with obesity and disease burden. There is some hopeful news though. Recent sudies have shown that nutrition education programs coupled with a supermarket tour can increase the purchasing of budget-friendly, healthier alternative foods among low income minority populations. This is encouraging because as Diane mentioned in one of her comments – food and grocery shopping priorities can change. However in order for this to occur, individuals need to be provided with the proper amount of effective nutrition education and behavior modeling. And the sooner, the better!

  30. Jamie Williams says:

    Hi Diane

    Thank you for sharing this post. Personally I would not stereotyped that all cheap food are bad. Or rather we should always read the nutrition label before we buy anything.

    Sometimes expensive foods are expensive because of clever marketing.

    Nonetheless, I get what you are trying to share with regards to investing in our health.

    Thanks for sharing your discovery in this post and I look forward to reading more of your blog post =) It’s my first time here by the way. Cheers!

  31. Peri says:

    Great article that brings home most of my fears when I go shopping. I end up coming home with very little food as the good food is more expensive to buy now. However, I prefer to eat less food that is healthy than fill my tummy with junk. Lots of people eat the cheap food due to financial issues to keep body and soul together.

    Thanks for this eye opener.

  32. Mr kumar says:

    I love cheap food. But then also my health matters too. There are some very healthy food you can get for cheap that fits my budget. When it comes to cheap food that’s unhealthy then it’s very bad. But then I have no choice because of finances. Love this website, great content and fantastic follow up comments.

  33. Dane Thorsen says:

    Well, it seems like you touched a nerve, here! This is genuinely nightmarish. The truth is we can’t afford NOT to eat healthier foods.

    There is no recognized safe level for trans fatty acid consumption. Governments and food manufacturers announce proudly that they have been all but eliminated from our food, and yet they are still a common ingredient in a wide range of products – including margarine, pastries, cakes and bread – often disguised in the form of mono- and diglycerides, as in this case.

    If you have the stamina to reply to all the comments, you should definitely write more on this topic. Great post.

  34. Barbara Hess says:

    There’s nothing cheap about cheap food, its like we are putting our nation’s health on a high interest credit card. I know too many people fueling up on cheap groceries that wonder why they dont’ feel good. Maybe its because we are turning into a nation made of corn syrup. I drank soda for years and I thought I was going to die when I broke the habit. Now if I taste it I can’t believe that my body could handle it … but then the cravings start. Right now we are doing our best to stick to buying local, its a lot more work but its nice to know the people who are feeding you!

  35. Maria says:

    “The low income population is a huge concern. There have been studies showing the concentration of fast food restaurants being extraordinarily high around low income neighborhoods and grocery stores being more scare. That is a terrible situation for those folks who live in those areas.”

    I would add this targeting is done deliberately by the fast food corporations. Furthermore, these areas tend to have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and crime. This is the real cost of cheap food.

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