A Can of Worms about Eating on a Budget

January 31, 2017 in Foodland, Health, Nutrition, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

All public health professionals have worries; that does not exclude public health dietitians/nutritionists. One of my big concerns is the amount of confusion and complexity that blanket nutrition. It is not just a consequence of the fact that nutrition is just in its adolescence – relatively speaking; and new science is constantly being discovered. But piled on top of the innate problems, marketers purposefully escalate the confusion. In all honesty, I must admit that this is a huge frustration for me.

I was doing some research for today’s article, which was initially going to be a piece on eating right on a budget, when I fell into a ginormous can of worms. I must say that they’re interesting worms; but a huge mess of worms all the same.

The original approach to my article for today was to support eating fruits and vegetables and how to do it on a budget. I was planning to share the concept that the best choice that you can make is to consume lots of vegetables and fruit, which deliver wonderful health benefits, regardless of your decision to buy organic or not.

Carl K. Winter Ph.D, a food toxicologist at the University of California, Davis doesn’t think it really is worth the higher price to buy organic fruits and vegetables. One part of the problem is that organic food is not necessarily pesticide-free. “Studies have indicated that as much as one quarter of organic fruits and vegetables may contain pesticide residues.” But even in the conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, the pesticide levels are not high enough to be a health concern.

Even the website of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) who publish the Dirty Dozen (includes 48 fruits and vegetables with pesticide residue) and the Clean 15 states, “The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables.” The fact is that people pay up to 47 percent more for organic vegetables and fruit.

Please bear with me a moment for a little more digression. I like the work that the EWG does, because I believe it puts pressure on agriculture to use fewer and less pesticides. But I worry that the dirty dozen scares people away from healthy fruit and vegetables. In addition, to continue my focus on marketing and even public health-sponsored confusion, I wonder how the consumer is supposed to understand how some of the same produce is on both lists.

Back to The Can of Worms

In trying to do a little research for the budget piece, I stumbled upon an article originally published in The Conversation and eventually in The Washington Post on January 5, 2017; where I read it. The title is: Why is healthy food so expensive? Maybe because we expect it to be. Even their subtitle whets my appetite for more: Studies show that consumers tend to associate higher cost with healthier foods, regardless of evidence. The article is fairly long; but not too long if you consider the amount of research and the benefit of understanding that can be gained by reading it. The article even touches upon a succinct explanation of lay theories. Within the midst of the gaggle, is the hypothesis that higher price points may even drive consumers to think of something as healthier. Not just that the healthy foods lead the consumers to believe that the price is higher. They found that both concepts seem to operate in both directions. Therefore, naturally the marketers are motivated to jack up the prices to make the consumer think it is a healthier product. And at the same time, slather the product packaging with health claims to jack up the consumer’s expectations of a healthy product and willingness to pay more.

Let me just share two quotes from the article: “…those trying to manage a food budget and feel good about the healthiness of their family meals may pay too much for their nutrition. And “We all know that price and quality aren’t perfectly correlated, but it doesn’t stop us from using price to judge quality when we don’t have other information.”

Based upon the article in The Conversation/The Washington Post, we need to spend some time to unravel the tangle of worms that leads people to the erroneous idea that eating healthy requires emptying your wallet.