How Cheap Is Fresh Food, Anyway?

Yellow ALERT sign on a plateA commonly repeated argument that tries to link food companies with a diabolical obesity-promoting conspiracy is that unhealthy “hyper-processed” snacks are cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables. Barry Popkin, recanted maker of the myth that high fructose corn syrup is worse for health than sugar, went on National Public Radio (NPR) Morning Edition today to bemoan that the Midwest is not covered in fields of berries or kale and to wail at their cost.

Michael Moss, the latest gadfly to purvey the scientifically dubious hypothesis of “food addiction,” agrees with Popkin, claiming on Diane Rehm’s NPR show yesterday: “It is true that fresh fruits and vegetables are still more expensive than the cheaper processed foods.” In response to Moss’s insinuations of conspiracy and plot to make food flavorful, our Senior Research Analyst pushed back:

To go to Michael’s point, this notion that there’s this conspiracy theory, that deep in the caves of these restaurants and food companies that are trying to make food taste good, is that it’s a conspiracy theory that occurs in kitchens across the country, across the world in restaurants. Everyone, of course, wants to make food that tastes good and we don’t want food that’s bland.

As regular readers know, the US Department of Agriculture finds consistently that on a per-serving basis fruits and vegetables can in fact be cheaper than processed salty snacks. Even Melanie Warner—author of the anti-processing tome Pandora’s Lunchbox—conceded as much, telling Rehm:

And it’s kind of a misnomer or a myth to think that healthy food and fresh food is too expensive for people. Or that eating healthy is a luxury of the rich. You can go into any supermarket, there are tons of examples of foods for meals that you can buy and cook at home for the same amount of money or sometimes even less money than you could going out to a fast food restaurant.

Moss thinks the only way we can “fix” this non-problem is to employ government — or trial lawyers, whose ranks may soon include Robert “No Soda Under 18” Lustig — to hold companies “accountable” for daring to provide consumers with enjoyable foods. But as our Senior Research Analyst noted, this approach presents problems: “When we convey to [people] that they are just victims and that the industry needs to change for them to lose weight, we are only setting ourselves up for continued failure.” Ultimately, weight gain and total health are matters for individual responsibility, not government action.

You can listen to our appearance on The Diane Rehm Show by clicking on the link.

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