Americans, myself included, are used to cheap foods. That’s one area of our budget where we feel we have some control and can reduce spending. But perhaps it’s this mindset that needs changing, since you get what you pay for. Would you consider buying a car that falls apart from the smallest ding, just because it was cheaper? Not likely. It’s a poor value for your money, and it’s unsafe. We can’t survive without eating, so why don’t we put the same priority on food? That bag of cookies with nutrient-depleted wheat, genetically modified sugar, chemical preservatives, and artificial flavors is the cheap car.
Still, the question remains: Why are healthier foods so much more expensive?
First, a definition of healthier. It could mean no artificial ingredients, organic, grass fed / pasture raised animal products, or produce grown in nutrient-rich soil. Each definition has different factors that influence price.
1. Subsidies – The Biggest Reason
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) distributes approximately $25 billion of tax money every year to the farming industry. A subsidy is money given by the government to farmers and farm-land owners to assist them. The initial idea was so the price of food would remain low and competitive, and farmers would be able to make decent wages even if crops failed. Unfortunately, the idea has been corrupted. Downsizing Government has a more in-depth look at how subsidies are abused, if you’re interested.
Subsidies are provided for over 100 crops, but a few of the main ones covered are the ubiquitous wheat, corn, and soybean. These subsidies mean select foods can be super cheap for the consumer, like the junk foods that rely on these ingredients. But in a roundabout way, subsidies discourage farmers from finding the best practices, so crops may be grown in nutrient-depleted soil and sprayed with plenty of chemicals.
2. Organic costs extra for the farmer and food manufacturer.
“Certified organic” is a legal term, and growers and producers have to undergo inspections in order to use it. This can be a costly process from several hundred to a few thousand dollars, along with a certification fee that must be paid each year. That’s not counting any extra expenses for meeting organic requirements, such as researching new pest management techniques or finding sources for organic ingredients.
3. Modern ingredients have been bred to have higher yields.
If you start looking for nutrient-rich varieties like your ancestors had, you’ll end up paying more because farmers get less per plant or animal. Many modern varieties of grains, produce, and animal products have been hybridized or manipulated for higher profits, often to the detriment of nutrients. Examples of products with inferior nutrient profiles are modern wheat bred to have more grains per stalk, super-sized tomatoes that travel without bruising, and animals that fatten faster than their grass-fed counterparts.
4. Chemicals are cheaper than the real deal.
Healthy foods are flavored with herbs, spices, whole foods, and healthy fats, and the costs for those add up. It’s cheaper to have an alternative, like MSG or a flavor packet (listed as artificial flavors) to mimic the real foods.
5. Whole foods have a short shelf life, so more is wasted.
Junk foods have preservatives, which equals a longer shelf leaf and a longer opportunity to be sold. Fresh whole foods may go bad within a couple of days, and farmers and food sellers have to price items so that they don’t take a loss when products are wasted.
So what do you think? Is the higher price worth it? Can you think of other reasons that healthier foods are more expensive?
Luckily there’s hope for our food budgets! Check out Healthy Eating on a Budget — Over 50 tips for saving money while eating well.