Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Argument for Spending More on Food

In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, food anthropologist Michael Pollan claims modern Americans spend nearly 5% of our income on what we eat. While this might seem like a lot, consider this: we used to cough up 10%.

For people like me, that 5% difference initially seems like a good thing. It’s helped me pay off school loans, squirrel funds away for a house, and stop living paycheck to paycheck. I can bank hundreds of dollars a month because I buy generic eggs at $1.99 per dozen, rather than the cage-free, brown-ish ones for $3.50.

But what about the long run? Will that same cheap food hurt my health? Does “cage-free” merit an extra $1.51? Will the money I save on inexpensive eggs eventually go toward doctors and drugs needed to ward off the effects of those eggs?

These are complicated questions, and with the economy beating Americans to a bloody pulp, paying more for quality groceries may seem ludicrous, not to mention antithetical to CHG’s entire mission. Of course, expense doesn’t necessarily connote excellence, either. It’s never a given that pricier food automatically means tastier, more nutritious, or more humanely raised food. Still, assuming that cost often coincides with quality, there are advantages to spending more on groceries that can’t be denied.

Consider the following points, then. Admittedly, they include sweeping generalizations, and holes can be poked ad nauseum, but I think the overall arguments are worth examining. Please, feel free to comment.

In many cases, more expensive food is healthier food.

When it comes to dairy, meat, and in-season produce – a.k.a. food found around the perimeter of the supermarket - the pricier options are often those made organically, locally, antibiotic-free, or with other higher standards in mind. Sure, these definitions are open to LOTS of interpretation, but it’s largely accepted the fancier food is healthier than the 8-for-$1 oranges shipped in from Paraguay. Often, their development isn’t rushed for profit’s sake, and there are fewer chemicals to be found both in and out.

Of course, the same holds true for packaged goods. Next time you hit Pathmark (or Food Lion or Kroger’s), take a look at some labels. Generally (very generally) speaking, more expensive items will have fresher ingredients with fewer additives, while cheaper items have more processed ingredients, including 17,000 different kinds of sugar (fructose, corn syrup, etc.). Why? Well, on the whole, chemicals are easier to create and preserve than real food, meaning production and packaging are less expensive. Need proof? Check cheese, frozen entrees, or yogurt. For example:
  • Currently, a 6-oz. container of Ronnybrook Strawberry Yogurt is going for about $0.27/oz on Fresh Direct. Its ingredients are as follows: pasteurized, unhomogenized whole milk, strawberries, sugar, nonfat dry milk, pectin, natural flavors, citric acid, and imported live cultures.
  • At the same time, Dannon La Crème Strawberry Yogurts are about $0.17/oz, but they contain the following: cultured grade A milk and cream, sugar, fructose syrup, strawberry puree, fructose, corn starch, kosher gelatin, natural flavor, malic acid, carmine and annatto extract, active yogurt cultures.
It almost makes sense that YoPlait, Dannon, and Breyers construct their products out of highly processed yogurt-like compounds rather than, say, yogurt. It makes it more affordable and thus, more marketable. However, it may not be better for our bodies.

Higher-priced food is often better-tasting.

This relates again to the amount of actual food in our food. A $4 loaf of cinnamon raisin bread from the farmers market may go bad in four days, but it’s DELICIOUS and lacks the distinct chemical overtones of store-bought bread, as well as the mile-long list of preservatives. While this difference is apparent all around the supermarket, it holds especially true for fresh foods, like produce, dairy, and of course, meat.

Speaking of meat: we’ve all sampled the poultry-esque flavor of McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets at some point or other. For the price, you get a lot of filling, vaguely edible niblets. But have you ever had pork from a butcher? Or an honest-to-god, line-caught piece of fish? Or chicken that didn’t come from Tyson? I have. The difference in flavor is world-changing, especially when a dish is prepared well.

Look, we do what we can with what we have. And sometimes, the results are pretty damn good. But there’s no denying that cheap, chemical-laden food products often taste like … well, nothing. For the sake of flavor, blowing a few more bucks to procure a decent chicken might be worth the money.

Some costlier foods guarantee better treatment of animals and more respect for nature.

Often, heftier price tags come with promises of better living conditions for cattle, chickens, and pigs. But why should you cough up extra dough for something that’s going to be killed anyway?

Simply, it’s probably healthier and definitely more humane. You don’t have to be a hemp-crazy hacky sacker to acknowledge that factory farms like CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) are less than ideal housing situations for soon-to-be butchered animals. Filthy and crowded, they promote disease and take short-cuts to produce in-demand meat on a faster basis. (While we’re on the subject, growing the same crops on the same land year after year can’t be particularly great for the ecosystem, either.)

Spending a few more pennies for farm-raised animals or local produce can help by promoting sustainable agriculture, along with open spaces for grazing. Beware, though, because you often have to look beyond the labels. Many “free-range” chickens don’t live on idyllic grasslands, but instead, in overcrowded coops with limited access to a tiny patch of barren, rarely-used soil. Still, research and careful label-reading can ensure your food originates from carefully-tended, pro-environment farmlands. And that? Deserves a few bucks.

Good food can make it feel like you’re spoiling yourself without blowing the bank.

A blogger named Scordo put this best in a January 9th post about his parents: “Eating well provides my parents with their own luxury lifestyle at a fraction of the price of most luxury goods.”

This particular point may apply more to foodies, but I think it’s valid enough to include. If you value and love food as much as I do, a $10 block of artisanal cheese is way, way better than a cashmere sweater or Coach bag. It costs $100 less, too.


There are more points to make here, but I think health, taste, environmental impact, and luxury are the most important four. And while CHG will continue to push less-expensive, well-cooked food, the arguments are solid food for thought.

Readers, what do you think? The floor is open.

(Photos courtesy of National Post and Shred Something.)

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Ali said...

I often tell myself I can't afford organic fruits and veg, even though I probably could if I ate a little less in general and tried a little harder to make it happen. I know deep down that it is probably going to be better for me in the long run to put more effort into eating quality food products, but it is so much easier in the short term to focus on what is in your wallet (or lack of what's there!). -Ali

Jaime said...

I definitely see the value in the more expensive foods sometimes, and sometimes put either quality, health, or animal/world welfare above cheapness.

I pay $3.50 for a dozen eggs that come from local, well-treated, truly free-range hens. Does this mean I have alternate eggs and oatmeal for breakfast to make them last longer? Yes. But it's worth it to me to know my egg-buying is better for the chickens, world, and me. Having read both The Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation, so being pretty up on the treatment of commercially-raised animals, I don't see an alternative, at least one that includes eggs.

I Like Your Buns said...

I am in grad school and on the tightest budget ever. I always have found a way to get healthy, good quality produce, either by working out a work-trade with the vendor or store in question or by eating the most expensive items less. Also, I don't eat meat. It's a tough call though, and thanks for raising the issue.

Chief Family Officer said...

For years now, I've shunned expensive clothing and other high-priced items, but I've always spent more than the average on good food. Mostly because, like you, I'm a foodie. And also partly because I have young kids, and I'm willing to pay extra for certain organic products for them. I'd be the first to agree that food is where I splurge the most :)

Laura said...

Great article and very timely! We've had this discussion in our house recently because we're in the process of changing our eating habits. Although we are now shopping at a market that specializes in higher end foods, we find that we are actually spend less on food overall because we're excited about the food we have. We are less likely to throw things out, we are trying a greater variety of foods, and--the big deal--we are eating out less. That is making a huge difference in our overall budget.

Heather said...

I make a habit of buying whole fruit and veg, not the bags of precut. That saves money, and whole foods have more nutrients than stuff that's been chopped and sat there.
Awesome article, and a great book. Another great book to read that is even more ambitious than just buying right is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

Just another SAHM said...

I feel that you can spend more on quality foods while staying within a reasonable budget by utilizing tools such as menu planning.

I also believe that when you love food, but are on a budget, that you will treasure your purchases more and find ways to use less while extracting the most flavor, texture, etc... This is not only good for your budget, but good for you because it can make you more 'portion size aware'.

Guiltless Glutton said...

Yes! However, I think in a lot of ways it probably ends up evening out. Where I live, anyway, the seasonal produce is cheaper than the stuff that's out of season, and meat from the butcher actually cost less than prepackaged, cut-up, injected-with-water meat pieces (like Tyson).

Ashley said...

Groceries are by far my one big vice as far as spending goes, so I love your last point and it is so true. I would much rather buy great ingredients to cook a fantastic meal than buy an outfit - and its still usually less than eating out.

Alison said...

Great post! This is a subject I've contemplated over and over again since refocusing on my own health. Natural and organic foods definitly taste better but are they really worth the extra expense? And how much better for you are they? These are things I've been thinking about and research myself and I loved reading your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm not a foodie- I would rather have a cashmere sweater than 10 blocks of fancy cheese!

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl said...

Sometimes, though,you can manage to have really good healthy food for really cheap if you make it yourself. Take yogurt for example...if you make it at home(recipe is on my blog), you can have even organic yogurt for about $1-$2 a quart, less if you use non-organic milk. No preservatives, no waste, no weird ingredients.

Or if you cook your own oatmeal for breakfast instead of buying those little packages, you can probably afford to buy organic rolled oats.

Kristine said...

First off, I don't know anyone that only spend 5% of their income on food. Before dh quit his job to go to school, we were spending around 15%. Now we make 1/3 of what we did before (grad student stipend). So that would mean we now spend about 45% - maybe less since we are eating out even less. I don't know anyone that only spends 5% on food.

My point is that while I do like to buy those kind of products, I can't let it affect my food budget too much. There just isn't much wiggle room. I work hard to feed our family of 7 (soon to be 8). There are a couple more options that we need to look at for things that are more local, but organic at the stores here just aren't an option.

Sulwyn said...

While I was growing up my family was completely vegetarian, shopping primarily at a local organic food co-op, and I have to say that I've been spoiled for good food. Now I find farmers markets and shop natural food stores for what I can and I think it makes a huge difference. I don't have to eat as much of something that tastes really good and is made with high-quality ingredients as I do of something commercially processed to feel full.

Arden said...

I still haven't decided. I think much of the organic trend is just that a trend and a fad. The new diet is "local", "green" and EXPENSIVE!
I had a friend that ran a co-op. Her order every month was full of boxes of organic mac & cheese, organic fruit snacks and my personal favorite, organic fruit loopy things for the kids. What a joke. She paid three times as much for groceries and I would say she wasn't eating better - at all.

Marcy said...

Great points! I do my best to save on the things that I can (household/toiletry items and some food items) so that I can splurge on as much "real" food that I can. Terrible that real food has to be considered a splurge, isn't it?

ConsciouslyFrugal said...

I'm a big believer in spending my money in ways that respect the environment and the people who made/grew/assemblied what I'm purchasing. A $5 shirt made by a child in Indonesia isn't a bargain; it's exploitation.

The same can be said of food. While some "organic" items are ridiculous (as Pollan mentions--organic TV dinners? puhleaze!), supporting my local farmer's market means that I'm giving my dollars to local folks with whom I can converse about the nature of their business. And 9 times out of 10, it's cheaper than the grocery store.

Bill in Houston said...

To be blunt, "organic" is a scam. Organic food tastes no better than the stuff sprayed by a farmer. In FACT, a farmer has a much higher yield with non-organic farming methods.

If you want to save money, go to an ethnic grocer. Houston is teeming with them, and nearly half the clientele are white suburbanites looking for cheaper food. While we buy certain staples at the local Kroger or Costco (milk, whole wheat sandwich bread, household cleaners, meat, fuel) we buy all of our fruits and vegetables at a Korean market. We spend an average of eleven bucks a week on: four bell peppers, four medium yellow onions, one red bell pepper, six bananas, four small apples, a pound of Chinese eggplant, two avocados, two heads of lettuce (one red leaf, one green leaf), three kiwi,
two jalapeños, two bunches of green onions, a bunch of radishes, a bunch of watercress, and a bag of carrots. We'll splurge on a clamshell package of strawberries or blueberries if they're under two bucks.

Christy said...

Great article. I disagree with the above poster that organic food is a scam. After researching the matter for an article I'm writing for my blog, I've come to the conclusion that when it comes to meat and animal products organic is superior because of the lack of antibiotics used in rearing the animals (though you don't have a total guarantee). Organic, locally produced food is the way to go, in my opinion, but I simply can't afford to buy 100% organic, so I have to make compromises.

Macy said...

I'm a little surprised that none of the posts have mentioned this, but I grow my OWN organic veggies in the warmer months. My family lives in typical suburbia, so instead of blowing money on lawncare, I switched to gardening instead! The investment is one-time for basic hand tools, and the cost of yearly seed supplies is a hell of a lot less than buying veggies at the grocery store. I save my food dollars for produce when I can't grow it, and buy locally at the farmer's market.

I realize that this isn't an option for eveyone, but I know that a lot of people have houseplants in a sunny window. Why not switch to pots of veggies instead? There's a lot of species that could be grown this way!

Colleen Terpening said...

Great post. I was looking for some good arguments for spending more money on food without having to type up reasons on my own (feeling lazy). This is a great summary. Thank you!