I share a lot of recipes and talk about food. But today I’m sharing something a little bit different. Today my husband is going to share some information in response to a question he was asked on his Facebook feed.
I’m not a food policy expert but since it was brought up I thought I’d look into the question of why it’s generally more expensive to eat healthy (or put another way – why salads are $7 and a burger is $1). This question isn’t technically accurate – while it’s not hard to find a $1 burger you can also find salad’s that are much cheaper than $7 but the idea of cheap burgers vs. expensive is reasonable.
As I looked around for information on this topic much of what’s out there applies to American food situation – but I suspect the information applies to Canada if not for our own food policies but because a significant portion of our food would come from or is heavily influenced by the U.S. (especially when considering cheaper food options).
Here’s the first interesting chart.
This graph “shows the price of different foods and beverages over the last three decades. The price of each food or beverage is set equal to 1 in January 1978, and the chart then shows how the price has changed since then.”[i] Most items are relatively cheaper with the obvious exception of fruit and vegetables – basically this confirms what we all assume, healthier foods are getting more expensive while unhealthy foods are getting cheaper.
Next up this chart, which seems fairly ready made to answer the question under consideration.
This would suggest that, contrary to what some might think, capitalism may have little to do with the high costs of some food and the relative lower costs of others. Yes, the U.S. government provides significant financial incentives to meat and dairy industry and relatively little to the fruit and vegetable industry.[ii] To put that in dollar figures the U.S. government spent about $23 billion in 2005 on farm subsidies while the total pretax farm profit in the U.S. was $72.6 billion.[iii] So of that $23 billion less than 1% (or about $85 million) of that government money was spent on fruits and vegetables.
I don’t know that I can say all the reasons why the government would do that. Some of the reason may be historical – the foundation of farm subsidies goes back to the early 1900s and made sense at the time to protect farmers and support foods that were more easily stored and shipped but there is inertia against change which leaves dated policies still functioning and even newer policies having unintentional effects that seem to entrench the status quo.[iv] One article has suggested a political aspect to this, “Few politicians are inclined to vote against farm subsidies: though farmers make up only a small number of voters, even in agricultural states, they are loud and organized enough to punish lawmakers who vote against a farm bill. Opposition to spending is muted; few voters realize how much of their money is given to farmers and even fewer would change their vote because of it.”[v] While the why is really complicated so is the how. There’s a lengthy article[vi] that gets into the intricacies of the system (which is apparently changing anyway) of how the government provides food subsidies. The government doesn’t just give money to corn growers (which is actually a grass not a vegetable and while we do eat corn it ends up being used for so much else – see below) it’s an insurance system whereby producers of corn and soy (which account for about half of the planted land in the U.S.) can rely upon an insured income or a fixed price where they’ll be topped up above market price. The author of the above referenced article makes the apt analogy of “farmers, at least to some extent, farming to the (farm) bill the way teachers teach to a test.”
It should be recognized that the relatively higher costs of vegetables are not simply due to misguided governmental regulation. As a simple example in the spring of 2015 the costs of lettuce went up because of a blip in the weather in California – warm temperatures in January and February that pushed some winter vegetables to peak harvest way too early, leaving gaps in the supply chain now that are pushing up prices.[vii] More recently we’ve seen weather changes along with increased interest cause the cost of cauliflower to go up.[viii]
The relative lack of governmental help does explain why the ingredients we put in salads can be more expensive. However, to go a bit deeper – there’s a few reasons to consider why a hamburger is so cheap. Some of that reason has to do with corn. The American industrial food complex has decided that it is easier to use one ingredient for many things. That ingredient is corn. For example, corn is actually a significant ingredient in the chicken nugget which, “’piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn’ (because the chickens are corn-fed), as does ‘the modified corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried. Much less obviously, the leavenings and lecithin, the mono-, di-, and triglycerides, the attractive golden coloring, and even the citric acid that keeps the nugget fresh can all be derived from corn.’”[ix]
I’m often amazed at how cheap pop is (except for Orangina) and part of the reason for that is corn, specifically corn syrup, is a main ingredient. As a side note the mere fact that Coca Cola sponsors a website call, the beverage institute for health and wellness that touts the benefits and minimizes the negative impacts of high fructose corn syrup should cause us to question our intake this processed substance.[x] Corn is the most heavily subsidized crop in the U.S. and becomes a significant food source for livestock (it’s cheap even if not the healthiest to feed corn to cows). Thus when we buy burgers we’re eating corn because that’s what cows are eating.
The final point to make is that not all burgers are equal. We often laugh at hotdogs for the mysterious provenances of their ingredients but these cheaper hamburgers are likely not much different. Although it was in the Guardian where policies may differ somewhat there was an article that explains the tricks these burger manufacturers will play to get to the mandated 47% of content of cow. Of course, even the high class burgers will have some non-meat ingredients (i.e. eggs) so the beef holds together but the article refers to protein added to burgers that, “might be extracted from boiled-up bits of animal even the French wouldn’t eat, such as hide or gristle and other offcuts, which are then dried and ground down to a power that does into a ‘seasoning’ mix.”[xi]
People do write books about these sorts of things but hopefully this give some food for thought (yup, intentional) about why eating healthy can be more expensive. Now let’s get back to talking about obesity in America.
If you have any other questions about health, we’d love to hear them.
[iii] Farm Subsidies Over Time, Washington Post, July 2, 2006,; this link does have a great graph that shows these financial details from 1960 to 2005
[ix] Flannery, Tim We’re Living on Corn (reviewing Michael Pollan’s – The Omnivore’s Dilemma); New York Review of Books, June 28, 2007