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But how much does it cost?

Studies show that eating healthily doesn’t have to cost more. The most important thing is knowing how to choose the right foods and to do so you need to be equipped with the right information.

What impact do different food choices have on your wallet? Are diets that are healthy for people and sustainable for the environment also economically accessible?
According to scholars, price (real or perceived) is one of the main factors influencing our food purchases: if you want to promote healthy and sustainable eating to the population, you can’t not talk about cost.
The BCFN has analysed different studies on the topic, particularly those conducted in Europe and the United States. Despite some conflicting data, it has been seen that it is possible to eat healthily regardless of income level: the healthiest and most sustainable diets are not necessarily accompanied by higher costs. Modifying food habits is, however, a must, and we need to consciously choose foods that are more nutritious, cheap and friends of the environment: a choice underpinned by education.

The Italian experiment
The BCFN carried out a little experiment based on information taken from the Italian Price Observatory database for April 2015. A number of daily and weekly menus – all balanced from the nutritional perspective – were analysed.
In the first menu (vegan), proteins are solely obtained from vegetal sources; the second menu (vegetarian) excluded meat but not dairy products or eggs; and the third menu (including meat) is omnivorous, with proteins primarily obtained from animal sources.
The vegan and vegetarian menus cost more or less the same in both Milan and Naples, the two cities studied, whereas the meat-based menu is more expensive by more than 0.85 euros a day.
To understand the effect these figures have on the family budget, we tried to combine the meat-based menu with the vegetarian menu, coming up with three types of weekly diets: a menu containing meat every day, a vegetarian menu every day and a combination of the two menus with five days meat free and two days with meat.
The results show that limiting meat consumption to twice every seven days saves almost €4.50 a week, more than 230 euros a year. A considerable figure, particularly in this period of economic crisis.

Obesity and poverty go hand in hand
In Italy, home to good cooking and the Mediterranean diet, eating well may be within everyone’s reach. But in other countries, the issue is more complex. Some studies, for instance, show an inverse relationship between socio-economic class and obesity rate, emphasising a higher presence of excess weight among people with low incomes and low levels of education. In the debate about which factors determine obesity, the price of food often ends up being levied at the accused, with the charge that healthy foods are too expensive (fruit, vegetables, wholegrain cereals and low fat products) and less healthy foods are too cheap. Unravelling the web of scientific data is not simple, as research often draws conflicting conclusions.
As stated in the BCFN publication, “Double Food Pyramid – Recommendations for sustainable food” (2015), the relationship between obesity and socio-economic status in the United States has been confirmed by a number of studies: in the country, customers shopping at discount stores primarily come from a lower socio-economic class and have a higher obesity rate (27%) than consumers shopping in high-end supermarkets (9%), also demonstrating a better quality of choice in terms of nutrition.

The USA can do it too
A study conducted by the Department of Public Health at Harvard University confirms the hypothesis that healthy food costs slightly more. The authors compared the cost of healthy choices with those that are less healthy, and the results revealed that the healthiest choices are also the most expensive. The greatest differences were found in meat: healthy options cost on average 0.29 dollars more per portion and 0.47 dollars per every 200 calories. A healthy Mediterranean diet, based on vegetables, fruit, cereals and fish, can cost up to 1.54 dollars more per day compared with a diet based on processed foods, meats and refined cereals. A figure that seems small, but which translates into some 550 additional dollars per year, which may be decisive, particularly for low income families.
Conversely, other research shows it is possible to maintain a diet that respects nutritional recommendations without incurring a rise in food costs. But all these studies have one thing in common: they stress the critical role of food education, particularly for low socio-economic classes.
In essence, we need to educate people to make good choices as they browse the supermarket shelves. A diet based on the principles of the Mediterranean diet is not more expensive, rather in some cases improving the nutritional quality of our diet may even result in economic savings.
Further research has demonstrated how introducing three meals per week based on vegetables, wholegrain cereals and extra virgin olive oil into our diet reduces spending while improving our general state of health. With this change, the cost of meat fell by 54% and the weekly cost of food shopping dropped by 45%, from 67 to 37 dollars a week: a monthly saving of about 124 dollars.


The United Kingdom costs more
According to a recent study by the University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, healthy diets in the UK cost more. Price variations between healthy and less healthy diets from 2002-2012 were analysed, examining 94 food products, classified according to their healthiness. Milk, yoghurt, fruit and vegetables, fish and lean meat are listed among the healthiest foods, while less healthy choices include pancetta, beef burgers, sugary drinks, doughnuts and ice creams. The results reveal that not only do healthier products cost more but that their price also tends to increase more than that for less healthy foods. In 2012 less healthy foods cost on average £2.50 per 1000 kilocalories while healthier products cost £7.49, almost triple.
From 2002 to 2012, the average price of healthy foods grew by £0.17 per year per 1000 calories, in contrast with £0.07 for less healthy foods.
Other studies do, however, suggest that healthy diets are not necessarily more expensive. For instance, the WWF UK report about the LiveWell food education project analyses the cost of a sustainable diet (characterised by a low environmental impact) compared with average food spending outlined by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The results show that the cost of the LiveWell diet is less than families’ average food spending in the United Kingdom, meaning that even in the UK it is possible to make healthy food choices with a low environmental impact while spending less.
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