The Economics of Eating Healthy

In a slight deviation from all things Brexit related (partly because it’s impossible to perform any rational analysis of the current situation, but mostly because I simply can’t take it anymore) an Instagram post caught my attention recently, where a young photography graduate had published a project she had undertaken to open random lunchboxes in a school (presumably with permission) and photograph the contents. The purpose was to provide a cross section of the sorts of things that parents are sending their children to school with, and along with it, she provided a commentary indicating her view that it was far cheaper, in terms of calorific value, to buy unhealthy food than to provide healthy food choices.

This is a view I’ve often heard from people, referenced in the media, and even informing government policy. Efforts by the government to police our eating choices through the sugar tax, conversation on portion control in restaurants and other initiatives, seem to indicate that this is a mindset taken seriously at all levels within our institutions.

I, however, disagree profoundly with this view, and this approach. In fact, the solution to our poor dietary choices as a nation lies not in making poor quality food more expensive, but in providing better food advice and education to society. With appropriate planning and selection of ingredients, I find it far cheaper to eat using healthy, high quality, and environmentally sustainable food choices than the ‘junk’ food alternatives.

By way of a thought experiment, I conducted a virtual shop of Iceland and Asda, selected primarily on the basis of the ease of use of their online shopping website. Iceland’s target market tends to be lower than average income families, and Asda I consider a mainstream supermarket, and I would imagine the results would come out similar with Tesco or another non-premium supermarket.

I selected a fairly typical meal choice, covering the minimum of essential food groups (carbohydrate, protein, fat and vegetable for fibre and minerals) of breaded chicken fillet, chips and peas.

Iceland brand Crispy
Chicken Breast Fillet
Iceland brand Straight
Cut Chips
Iceland brand frozen for
freshness garden peas

So, we’re at £5 for our Iceland shop, which I think we can agree is very reasonable, and our above list will cover the minimum food groups and provide several portions – more on the specifics later.

Next, I selected a recipe that I consider relatively luxurious, but healthy and affordable. I have to confess that the BBC Good Food website is a bit of a go-to for me, as they have a huge selection of easy to prepare recipes. I chose this South Indian Chickpea Curry, which covers at least three (and I’d argue four) of your five a day, uses fresh ingredients and absolutely won’t break the bank.

Chickpeas – 2 tins£0.66614480g
Dried Chilli£1.43n/a32g
Ground Coriander£0.79n/a41g
Garam Masala£1.24n/a98g
Tomato Puree£0.37150200g
Tomatoes – 1 tin£0.35100400g
Creamed Coconut£0.501,208200g
Fresh Coriander£0.55n/a25g
Basmati Rice£0.451,7101kg

Now, admittedly, we have had to fork out a little more up front at £7.61 but as you will see, a lot of this will go to stocking the food cupboard for future purposes. In order to make a fair comparison, we need to calculate the price of ingredients that make a single portion.

British health guidelines indicate that an adult should aim to consume around 2,000 calories per day, so I’ve set our target calorific value of our dinner at a little over a third of this at 675 calories. They also state that approximately 50% of our energy should be sourced from carbohydrates, with the remaining 50% being split between fat and protein, with the emphasis on unsaturated fats.

Accordingly I’ve designed my single serving Iceland meal as outlined in the table below – with the bulk of the energy supplied from the chips, followed by the chicken and a portion of peas for vitamins and minerals.


At 79p per portion, this seems a little hard to beat, and I’ll admit I was surprised at how low the price can be for, what is essentially, a frozen ready meal. Next up my curry: the recipe I was following was for four servings, so I followed the suggested guidelines amounts and then divided by four to get the appropriate weights, as can be seen in the table below.

Cumin 0.5g 0£0.01
Ground Coriander 0.5g 0£0.01
Garam Masala 0.5g 0£0.01
Tomato Puree10g8£0.02
Fresh Coriander6g0£0.06
Basmati Rice180g308£0.08

So, with a meal that contains one fifth the salt, three or four times the vegetable portions but comparable quantities of carbohydrate, protein and fat (of which more are unsaturated), I have spent 11p less than the budget alternative. The recipe indicates that this should take around 40 minutes to prepare and cook (and having made it, I can vouch for this), which compares to around 30 minutes according to the Iceland cooking instructions.

You can argue, of course, that putting some chips and chicken in the oven is much less attention resource intensive than chopping up onions and stirring the frying pan, however this is why I would argue our food culture problem lies not in the cost of the ingredients, but in our attitudes to what is important in life. Food and nutrition plays such a fundamental role in our physical and mental health, yet we live in a world where people will pay £60 per month for a gym membership and then shove some fish fingers in the oven when they get home because they don’t have time to cook.

As a society, the only way we will improve our food culture is to reshape how we see food and the importance of quality ingredients, eating healthily, and providing the tools and expertise so that young people learn how to shop and eat in a sustainable, affordable, and healthier way.

Accordingly, Government policy should not be about limiting choices in restaurants, or taxing food groups, which can have unintended consequences (which I’ll explore further in another post), but about educating people how to live healthily and giving them the tools to make informed decisions themselves.

If you have views on this, or tips on what you do to eat well for less, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Category: Food, Politics | Tags: , , ,
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