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October 20, 2007 News

(From the Vegetarian Organic Blog newsletter) The conventional wisdom that healthy food is more expensive than "conventional" food (adulterated, mass-produced, junk and industrial food) is a myth. Don’t believe it.

On the societal level, unhealthy food is far more expensive than healthy food.

Hidden costs come in the form of pollution and harm to the environment caused by artificial fertilizers and contaminated water systems from conventional agriculture and animal factory farms.

If you haven’t already, I recommend that you read Michael Pollan’s book, the Omnivore’s Dilemma. Although I have some issues with the book, I believe Pollan has made some important contributions in raising the public’s awareness about our food chain, factory farming and how corn is in everything we eat and drink. Even the animals raised for meat are fed corn, with 80 percent of corn produced in the U.S. ending up as livestock feed. The rest is added to soda, burgers, chicken nuggets, chips, white breads, candy and all junk food in fast food restaurants and processed foods in grocery stores.

Many don’t realize the importance of the U.S. Farm Bill, which is a nasty form of corporate welfare responsible for providing tax-funded subsidies to giant conventional agribusiness corporations. The government takes billions of dollars from you and me in the form of taxes, and uses that money to artificially lower the price of industrialized or conventional food -- much of it supporting low prices for the junk food that causes our many epidemics of cancer, obesity and diabetes. This transfer of wealth from the public to the junk food giants makes us lose sight of the fact that we are not paying the true dollar cost at the store. For junk food, we pay for part of it at the store or restaurant, and the rest we pay at tax time.

There are hidden costs not obvious to the general public or the uninformed consumer. If you’d like to learn more about the cost of real whole foods versus the cost of conventionally produced foods that are subsidized by the Farm Bill, I strongly recommend you read an insightful article written by Pollan for the New York times on this subject. This article is incredibly eye-opening, and will change forever the way you look at our food supply.

We are paying a very heavy price for unhealthy food -- and will pay even more over time.

Healthy food is cheaper on the personal level, too.

If you define "food" based only on one metric of nutrition -- calories -- then it's possible to argue that junk food or unhealthy food is cheaper than healthy food. Yes, if you want to maximize calories per dollar, junk food is the way to go. But why use calories as the metric? Are you really trying to maximize your calories?

What about vitamins and minerals per dollar? Antioxidants per dollar? Fiber content per dollar? Phytonutrients per dollar? Using these more desirable metrics, healthy, organic, vegetarian food is the cheapest food you can buy.

It’s vital to accept that food is central to health and overall well being. Being healthy without eating healthy is just crazy talk. The negative effects of unhealthy foods may be minor in the short term, but the cumulative effects are devastating.

People eat junk food to save money. But what's the cost of chronic fatigue? Obesity? Heart disease? Cancer? Early retirement? Early death?

You will pay far more in the long run for unhealthy food than you will for good food.

We seem disconnected from the reality of what real food is. Burgers, deep fried chicken, hot dogs, deli meats, fries, chips, soda, donuts, white bread, white pasta, white flours or any other of thousands of processed foods filling the shelters at grocery stores looks like food, but is really a global science project. Such "food" is cheap because it is garbage. It provides little or no nutritional value and it’s usually loaded with sugar, bad fats, preservatives, artificial flavors, artificial colors, GMO’s, pesticides and more, all of which are seriously detrimental to our health.

Healthy food is inexpensive when you consider the hidden cost of adulterated conventionally grown food. Seitan, for example, is typically sold in 8 oz packages for $3.49 or so per package. One pound comes to $7 making it the single most expensive vegetarian protein available. But higher-quality lean meats and other animal proteins are also expensive and often cost more than $7.00 per pound.

The total cost of the seitan meal I featured in a previous issue, for instance, would cost roughly $15 to make but would also provide six generous serving or eight smaller ones. One meal made with one of the most expensive vegetarian proteins comes to $2.50. That’s not expensive. Going to McDonald’s costs you more at the cash register -- plus more at tax time and more at the doctor's office.

Organic tofu is also a great vegetarian source of protein and is significantly cheaper than any type of meat at only about $1.50 to $2 per pound. You can’t beat that -- lots of nutrition for little money.

Soybeans are subsidized by the government but only the ones mainly used to feed animals raised for human consumption. Organic (not genetically modified) tofu is not subsidized.

Tempeh is also very inexpensive. All vegetarian unprepared protein sources made from whole food sources are far cheaper than animal protein.

Some of my recipes also call for quinoa, which is about $1.50 per pound at Trader Joe’s. One pound will give you about 16 servings, that’s less than .09 cents per serving! Other recipes call for beans; again, depending on the type of beans, the price per pound varies between 0.70 cents to $1.79 per pound.

Nutrition education and meal planning are essential in making healthy food choices as well as fiscally responsible ones. As consumers we have to keep abreast of how our food system really works to have clear understanding of not only the role food plays in our lives but also the role we play in our own health.

Is healthy food expensive? It doesn't have to be. And, in the final analysis, is really the least expensive food you can buy.

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