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The True Cost of Processed Foods

Posted by Christina Boyes on

Eating healthy is more expensive. At least, that’s the story we’ve been told numerous times by the press. After all, when you tally grocery receipts, it sure looks that way…but there’s more to what you eat and its cost than what you pay in the store. Recent research has confirmed the influence of a healthy diet on the overall cost of food for a year, and the results are about what you’d expect – according to a Harvard study 1, a diet that skips processed foods and focuses on more healthy eating patterns costs about $1.50 more per day, per person 2.

Despite the low cost of useless carbs and processed junk, there is an end-of-the-year difference in cost that swings in favor of a healthy diet. You won’t find it in your grocery receipts, however. If we stop thinking short term and start thinking long term, the right path becomes clear. In this post, I’ll show you why your bottom line is better on a healthy diet.

Cost of processed foods

Let’s put a few things in perspective before we get started. In France, people spend an average of 13 percent of their income on food. In the US, we spend about 7 percent of our budget on food. The two countries eat diets that contain quite a bit of processed food, but the French eat less of it than we do in the States, at 130 lbs. per capita vs. 183 lbs. per capita (that number doesn’t include sauces, candy, sodas, canned soups, and a whole ration of other ‘foods’ that should be considered processed.) Another difference between the French and the US? The percentage of income spent on healthcare. In France, the amount spent on healthcare ranged between 10.1-11.7% in the past 15 years. In the United States, our healthcare spending has consumed 13.1-17.9% 3 of our yearly income.


Healthcare and Processed Food

If you take the time to dig through the statistics, you’ll find that the life expectancy in the two countries is very similar, however. But there’s more to the story. Let’s visit somewhere poorer than the Occident, where modern hospital care is uncommon for the average citizen, but the diet is rich in whole foods – India.

Know how much Indians spend on healthcare, as a percentage of income? Over the past 15 years, roughly 3.7-4.5%.

How much processed food do they consumer per person, per capita? About 6 lbs. per person each year. 39 if you count all those sauces, canned soups, candy, and other junk…

Now let’s say that a chicken nugget weighs 0.6 ounces on average (it does.) That means that in India, the consumption of processed food is roughly equal to 160 chicken nuggets per person. For the United States, the processed food consumption equates to 4880 chicken nuggets.

Is processed food killing you?

Maybe India’s spending as a percentage of income is a biased number. We should look at the top causes of death, just to be sure. Right?

Just so you know, I’m using 2005 data for processed food consumption.

Top ten causes of death in India (2000-2003) 4:

1.Cardiovascular diseases

2.COPD, asthma, other respiratory diseases

3.Diarrheal diseases

4.Perinatal conditions

5.Respiratory infections


7.Malignant and other neoplasms


9.Unintentional injuries: Other

10.Symptoms signs and ill-defined conditions

Diabetes and processed foodsTop eleven causes of death in the US (2004):

1.Diseases of heart

2.Malignant neoplasms (cancer)

3.Cerebrovascular diseases

4.Unintentional injuries

5.Chronic lower respiratory diseases

6.Unintentional injuries

7.Alzheimer's disease

8.Diabetes mellitus

9.Influenza and and pneumonia

10.Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis


Source: 10 Leading Causes of Death in the U.S., 2004 | 5

What don’t you see on India’s list? Diabetes, for one. Many of the other causes are similar, and India’s increase in junk food consumption is probably at least partially to blame.

Real foods are related to better quality of life, reduced chronic illnesses, improvement in autoimmune conditions, and lower risks of cardiopulmonary conditions. In short – better health and lower healthcare costs.

As Dr. Mark Hyman reminded us in a 2010 blog article 6,

“The biggest advantage of eating well now is not just preventing disease and costs later, but simply enjoying each day to its fullest. You can make that happen. Eating well doesn't have to cost more.

It's true that there are very few, if any, subsidies for the production of produce or healthier alternative foods. And the same government agency that supports the production of the ingredients for junk food provides less than $300 million for education on healthy nutrition.”

Kris Gunnar of Authority Nutrition had a few things to say 7 about the cost of processed foods, too. Like this list describing the problems with processed foods:

  1. Processed foods are usually high in sugar and high fructose corn syrup
  2. Dangers of processed foodProcessed foods are “hyper rewarding,” leading to overconsumption
  3. Processed foods contain lots of artificial ingredients
  4. Many people become addicted to junk food
  5. Processed foods are often full of highly refined carbohydrates
  6. The majority of processed food products are low in nutrients
  7. Processed foods are usually low in fiber
  8. Less time and energy is required to process these foods – again leading to overconsumption
  9. Processed foods often contain high amounts of trans fats or vegetable oils

I’m sure you’re well-versed in the problems related to the issues Kris mentioned, so I won’t bore you with the details.

Your health isn’t the only thing that suffers from eating too many processed foods, although it’s one of the most important in my book. Your teeth suffer – when you aren’t healthy, your dental health is lousy, too. And when you add sugar and refined carbs on top of poor health, or cover your teeth in acid (like many of the ones that are used to reserve processed foods) you create the perfect environment for gum disease and tooth rot. Yum.

And then there’s the beauty cost…ask any nutritionist. A few friends of mine in the industry have told me flat out that when they meet someone for the first time, they know what kind of diet the person is eating. It shows in every detail – from the health of your hair to the moisture in your skin and the texture of your nails. Eat lousy and you’ll need tons of creams, lotions, special shampoos and conditioners, and other beauty products. Eat healthy and your body will keep you looking youthful and attractive. Kathy Block discusses this in detail on Granny’s Vital Vittles 8.

Not to mention the money you’ll save on dining out (good luck finding a wide variety of healthy foods outside your kitchen). When you realize that cooking isn’t a chore, you’ll start saving money and having fun in the kitchen. Family meals might become a “thing,” and the extra cash you have on hand could fund some outings that are worth it instead of burger grabbed on the way to practice.

Now that you’ve seen why I think processed foods are too costly to eat, what do you think? I’d love to hear from you. And remember, sharing this post is caring! 

Image credits: Graphic Stock










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