The hidden cost of cheap food


Many people like the taste of junk food. Most will not be aware of the work by distinguished journalists exposing Big Food’s ‘false’ or ‘fake’ foods (see below). Carefully engineered synthetic flavours are a perfect hook that enables Big Food to ensnare us with tasty morsels, backed up by massive marketing and advertising campaigns. No wonder the healthcare industry has been out-gunned in trying to warn of the problems associated with this food. As far as most of the public is concerned, it’s cheap and while not necessarily ‘healthy’ it may be considered ‘wholesome’ or even ‘nutritious’. Unlike cigarettes, there is no warning that it can be bad for your health, which is why it can also continue to be perceived as good value.

Processed food is worse than you think

It’s hard to credit, but smoking was once advertised as good for you. It took years to win that battle, and that was a relatively straightforward health issue. Food is infinitely more complex, with the ability to tie up experts in the minutiae of nutritional discussions, so slowing down the prospect of significant action. While advertisers retain free range to promote these foods without any health warnings attached, it’s hard to believe we will make significant progress in curtailing their  consumption within large parts of the population, especially when we factor the relatively low costs.

“Supersized” is a good example. The ingredients are such a small part of the costs, fast food chains are happy to sell in bulk at discounted prices; if you start with a meal already high in dietary sugars and fats, where the energy density of the foods is already a problem, it’s not hard to appreciate you start supersizing and you end up with excess energy uptakes and increasing body weight.

It’s the poorest parts of society that suffer most

There is clear evidence of a food revolution, but many of the most economically compromised still believe there is no alternative to cheap highly processed food. Unfortunately, they may be filling their stomachs, but their bodies are being starved of nutrition.

Malnutrition results from the interaction of poor-quality diets and poor-quality health as well as care environments and behaviours which are shaped in part by a host of underlying factors. Yet the overweight and underweight have one thing in common: eating too little of the right food, whether it be through choice or circumstance. However, it’s the obese that seem to be eating too much of the wrong food.

The hidden cost of ‘cheap’ food

Highly processed food and fast food may seem cheap, but it’s expensive for what it is – just think of the cost of all the fancy packaging and advertising. It’s especially so if priced on a nutritional basis. Factor in longer term healthcare costs, well, it’s estimated an American household with one obese person incurs additional annual health care costs equivalent to 8 percent of its annual income.

Eating good fresh food might seem more expensive, it might even be more expensive in some instances, but we are getting a lot more nutrition for our money. And there are ways to cut down on cost:

  • eat what’s in season, when the food is plentiful and cheaper
  • choose ingredients can revolutionise the tastes of food
  • this can offer better value, as you need to buy less, yet still feel satisfied
Real food is better than you know

It’s worth recalling that the diet most healthcare professionals recommend is the Mediterranean Diet, which in most cases was a diet of the poor. Typically, legumes and vegetables are consumed in large amounts in cooked dishes, soups, as well as in salads prepared with olive oil. Intake of milk is moderate, but consumption of cheese and yogurt is high. Traditionally meat, being expensive, was less frequently consumed, whereas fish was readily available from the sea, with fruit for dessert.

Translated into modern city living this means adopting a diet that is plant-based, so generally cheaper, with a heavy emphasis on fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, seeds, beans and olive oil – all offering good value. Eggs, dairy, poultry and fish are consumed regularly, but the portions might be smaller than is typically consumed today. Meat should make only an occasional appearance (with the added benefit of saving money) perhaps added in smaller amounts to make sauces, beans and pasta dishes more flavourful.

What’s stopping change?

Marketing, fake food addiction, ignorance, resistance to change; these are all likely contributory factors. In terms of US government policy, it probably doesn’t help that while good health makes sense it doesn’t make money. Some say about a quarter of what you eat is good for you, three quarters is good for Big Food and Pharma. I say we need to work on this ratio.


Make eating real food Just Routine


Three terrific books on how we are often not eating what we think we are eating…

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by Michael Moss

Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets, by Joanna Blythman

Real Food/Fake Food by Larry Olmsted.

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Iris is the founder of No Targets Just Routine. She has researched food since 2009 and believes “Happiness is real food shared with loved ones.”

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