Lifestyle Economics Blog

A few weeks ago I found myself being filmed in a New Zealand supermarket searching for a healthy meal for four. The Kiwi equivalent of The One Show wanted me to help them demonstrate how much more expensive it is to cook a nutritious meal than to eat out in a well-known hamburger chain. In fact, I was able to buy all the ingredients for a good quality, chicken stir-fry for half the price it would have cost to buy four basic fast food meals. This seemed to come as a shock to the show's presenters and, I would guess, to a fair number of viewers since it is widely believed that burgers and chips are a cheaper alternative to wholesome, home-cooked dinners.

Comparing the price of a fast food meal to the ingredients of a homemade dish is, to be perfectly candid, a bit of a cheat. What about the opportunity cost of preparing the meal? What about the financial cost of heating the oven or taking the car to the supermarket? Even if we had taken those costs into account, I suspect that the well-known hamburger chain would still have lost the battle of the bargains, but it must be conceded that the experiment was not entirely fair.

Comparing the price of 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' uncooked food in a supermarket, on the other hand, is extremely fair. Again, it is widely believed that the healthy stuff is more expensive and this perception is strengthened by headlines such as 'Healthy diet costs three times that of junk food'. Upon closer inspection, such claims are only tenable if you measure the cost of food in a rather peculiar way and if you ignore the word 'diet'.

The study that inspired this headline was published in PLoS One this week. It didn't look at the cost of a healthy meal, let alone a healthy diet. It looked at how much you would have to spend to get 1,000 calories out of various food products. By this method, lettuce—one of which I bought yesterday for 49p—comes in at a whopping £16.45 whereas energy dense foods like doughnuts and jam 'cost' less than a pound. Voila! Healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy food.

To see the problem here, we need to ask how foods come to be defined as 'unhealthy' in the first place. The study in question relies on a Food Standards Agency test which is used to decide what can and cannot be advertised on children's television. One of the key criteria is calorie content. The unhealthy foods have lots of energy in them and this is measured by how many calories there are in 100 grammes of the product. The more calories, the more likely it is to be placed on the naughty list.

Calories are not unhealthy per se, of course, but the FSA's concern is that eating energy-dense food is more likely to lead to obesity than eating low-calorie food. That's all well and good, but it doesn't give the 'healthy' food much chance of ever being cheap. Once you've decided that the price of food is dictated by how much of a calorific bang you get for your buck, low calorie food becomes expensive by definition. It is a system that guarantees that a cauliflower will always be more expensive than a pizza. A lettuce would have to be sold in the shops for less than 2p for it to become cheaper than a sponge cake by this measure.

Defining high-energy food as unhealthy and then defining cheapness as being 'food with lots of energy in it' is tautologous. You might as well declare heavy objects to be cheaper than light objects on the basis that they cost less per ounce. It would be true, but not very informative.

Low calorie foods are obviously not the best choice if you are in need of energy. Complaining that people would have to buy lots of them to get a thousand calories is to turn their virtue into a vice. It would undoubtedly be expensive to meet your recommended daily calorie allowance by eating lettuce, but it would also be horrible and probably impossible. It is precisely because lettuce is low in calories that we buy the awful, tasteless stuff. We then put it on a plate with other food to create a 'meal' and it is the cost of the meal that matters.

Food prices have certainly risen in recent years—by 8.6 per cent in real terms since 2007, according to DEFRA—but they are still lower than at any time before 2002, and the price of fruit and veg has actually fallen in the last year. To claim, as the Independent has, that 'Eating well is increasingly become the preserve of the rich' borders on the histrionic. Your local supermarket will still sell you a cauliflower for 89p, a bag of potatoes for £1.50 and a kilo of rice for 40p. If people are not eating as healthily as the Food Standards Agency would like, it is not because we feel unable to get our day's calories from the vegetable aisle. As the obesity figures show, getting enough calories is the least of Britain's problems.


Christopher Snowdon
9 October 2014
A study was published in PLoS One last year titled 'Economic Instruments for Population Diet and Physical Activity Behaviour Change: A Systematic Scoping Review'. I didn't notice it when...
Christopher Snowdon
16 September 2014
The economist Julian Simon once wrote that ‘the economic study of advertising is not deserving of great attention’, ruefully adding that ‘this is not a congenial point at which to...
Christopher Snowdon
18 August 2014
Obesity prevalence has increased sharply in Britain since the 1970s. Many public health campaigners portray Britain’s obesity ‘epidemic’ as being caused by the increased...
Christopher Snowdon
4 July 2014
The e-cigarette market in Britain has the closest thing to perfect competition that you will see in the real world. Perfect competition is a theoretical economic model but, like most economic models...
Christopher Snowdon
15 June 2014
Alcohol policy in Britain and many other countries aims to reduce per capita alcohol consumption in the belief that this will inevitably reduce heavy and harmful drinking. Campaigners cite the...
Christopher Snowdon
4 June 2014
The US Food and Drug Administration is considering making a calculation of the pleasure that people get from using e-cigarettes and tobacco products. It has suggested that financial estimates of the...
Christopher Snowdon
13 May 2014
The Economist has put a nice little chart together based on the latest World Health Organisation report on alcohol. It shows alcohol consumption per capita but also per drinker. Contrary to...
Christopher Snowdon
1 May 2014
Much of the moral panic about gambling in recent years has centred on the claim that the number of problem gamblers has "increased by 50% in three years" and that the UK has 450,000...
Christopher Snowdon
24 March 2014
The latest installment of the plain packaging saga is expected to arrive before the end of the month. After the initial public consultation found that two-thirds of those who responded were opposed...
Christopher Snowdon
19 March 2014
Today's budget was another curate's egg from the perspective of lifestyle liberty. The decision to scrap the alcohol duty escalator is very welcome, as is the freezing of spirits and cider...
Christopher Snowdon
18 March 2014
The authors of the report that claims that inequality costs the UK £39 billion a year (see yesterday’s post) say that rates of imprisonment would fall by 37 per cent in a ‘more...
Christopher Snowdon
17 March 2014
On Sunday, the Observer reported that ‘Inequality “costs Britain £39bn a year’. This is based on the belief that ‘a more equal UK would experience less crime and...
Christopher Snowdon
18 February 2014
As reported in The Guardian and elsewhere, the Alcohol Health Alliance has issued a press release in response to the ongoing campaign to bring an end to the alcohol duty escalator which, according to...
Christopher Snowdon
5 February 2014
In June 2012, the IEA published Sock Puppets, a report which looked at the evidence, and implications, of taxpayer funding for the large and growing element of ‘civil society’ that is...
Christopher Snowdon
4 February 2014
The French think tank Institut économique Molinari has recently published a clear and well-referenced report that looks at the false premises and negative consequences associated with sin...
Ryan Bourne
30 January 2014
It’s often said that modern day politicians lack conviction – that is, they are afraid of expressing their firmly held beliefs. This is not universally true, of course. But one of the...
Christopher Snowdon
7 January 2014
Ed Miliband’s pledge to crack down on the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’ is a significant moment in the extraordinary moral panic over fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs). Last...
Christopher Snowdon
14 October 2013
The poorest twenty per cent of households in Britain spend an average of £1,286 per year on ‘sin taxes’, including betting taxes, vehicle excise duty, air passenger duty, ‘...
Christopher Snowdon
4 September 2013
Many 'public health' policies aimed at reducing harmful alcohol use, such as minimum pricing, are underpinned by a belief in the Total Consumption Model. This model—also known as the...
Christopher Snowdon
1 August 2013
In 2010, a piece of research was published by Policy Exchange, a think tank, which managed to lodge one "fact" into the public's consciousness which has persisted every since. Namely,...

Invest in the IEA. We are the catalyst for changing consensus and influencing public debate.

Donate now

Thank you for
your support

Subscribe to