• Robert Cheeke

Save Money. Eat Plants.

When you think of a plant-based diet, you probably think of improved health first, right? More vitamins, more minerals, less saturated fat, no trans fats, and vibrant, colorful fruits and vegetables, likely come to mind. That certainly wasn’t the case decades ago, when a lack of nutrition seemed to be the stigma that plants carried with them. But we’re much smarter now, and we’ve learned a thing or two along the way, licking our wounds from bad nutritional habits, seeking redemption and a second chance to get it right before common degenerative diseases set in. In the process, we also experienced either first hand or in our environment, what a Standard American Diet (ironically, SAD) has done to our health. We've seen how a plant-based diet has been able to course correct, and lead us down a path to better well being.





Today, a plant-based diet is often associated with lower cholesterol, less obesity, reduced risk of heart disease and cancer, improved overall health, and greater vitality. Hippocrates’ hopeful message, “Let food be thy medicine” from 400 BC, seems relevant now more than ever. If we let pills be thy medicine, we're likely already in bad shape, and pills can only sustain us for so long. But what if we didn’t really need “thy medicine,” from a pharmaceutical standpoint, in the first place? Hippocrates said, “let medicine be thy food,” and it works wonders for people around the globe who keep a western diet off their plates. The concept of eating real, affordable, accessible plant foods as the foundation of a diet to promote health is tried and true. Still, it seems out of practice for many. It’s an idealistic goal worth pursuing, but not a perfect end game. We all have different bodies and our own unique biology when it comes to nutrition and how we respond to the nutritional environment around us. Perfect health often eludes us, but an improved state of health and wellness is always within sight, so long as we can see the forest for the trees and reach for it. Since perfect health is hard to achieve, though worth the investment to try to attain, let's look at another benefit of a plant-based diet outside of health. Surprisingly, I'm not referring to the exercise and fitness benefits provided by the power of plants. No. Not today. Instead, I want to address the plant-based elephant in the room, pun intended, and acknowledge the amazing money-saving opportunity that a plant-based diet can deliver when planned appropriately. At a time when economic relief is at the forefront of many families' concerns, along with a desire for improved personal health and wellness, an affordable, plant-based diet can be a lifesaver. How can a plant-based diet actually save money and improve health without government subsidies and with a plate void of any animal protein? That is what I aim to reveal in this assessment and evaluation of the best foods, for the best prices, that provide the best nutrition for sustained economic and physical wellness.

In 2013, according to the Economic Research Service (ERS) at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), it was possible for a person on a 2,000-calorie diet to eat a sufficient quantity and variety of fruits and vegetables for about $2.10-$2.60 per day. Who says a plant-based diet is elitist and expensive, now? The USDA has data to prove otherwise, and costs of produce have only risen moderately, typically less than one percent each year since 2013, with some slightly larger month-by-month and annual increases on certain foods, making this affordability consistent in today’s market. Maybe today’s cost would be a whopping $2.49-$2.99 a day to reach a 2,000-calorie diet on ample fruits and vegetables. Too bad we haven’t seen wages increase to meet this demand. Of course, we all eat more variety than just fruits and vegetables, so we’ll analyze a number of common plant-based foods when we compare cost effectiveness and health benefits of the items that appear most often on our plates.


Beyond just saving money by buying the cheapest fruits and vegetables, bags of dried beans and split peas, and scooping grains, nuts, and seeds out of the bulk bin (not recommended during the age of COVID-19 Coronavirus, by the way), there are other, often overlooked and underappreciated cost-saving benefits of a plant-based diet. Consider the following topics we'll take a deep dive into:

  • Nutritional Return On Investment (ROI)

  • Nutrient to calorie density ratio

  • Diversification of calories

  • Shelf stability

  • Allergen-friendly foods

  • Quality calorie per dollar return without subsidies

Nutritional Return On Investment

At first glance, some obvious foods are top of mind when you think about grocery cart savings, right? You know the staples: rice, beans, oats, pasta, frozen fruits and vegetables, canned goods, and buying items in bulk, either from the literal bulk bin or in a supersized package often found at places like Costco and Sam's Club. Those are some smart strategies for sure, but won't some of those foods be better than others? Would the same amount of calories from pasta provide the equal nutritional value to a similar serving (and calorie) size of steamed broccoli from one of those giant frozen broccoli bags purchased in bulk for pennies on the dollar? Not according to Dr. Joel Fuhrman's ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) scorecard, which rates broccoli with a score of 340 out of 1000, and white pasta as a measly 11 out of 1000. For the record, kale and a few other leafy greens score a perfect 1000. White pasta ranks ahead of cheddar cheese, and below French fries on this nutritional scale, which uses 34 nutritional evaluation factors such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, angiogenesis inhibitors (cancer fighting agents), resistant starch (resistant to digestion in the small intestine, acting like fiber as a prebiotic that feeds good gut bacteria), resveratrol plus ORAC score (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, which is the measure of antioxidants in food), and others, to determine a health score for a given food. What if it is whole wheat pasta we’re comparing to broccoli in the same calorie serving? While whole-wheat pasta wasn't referenced on the ANDI scorecard, whole wheat bread scored 30, and brown rice, another semi-common version of pasta, scored 28. So, for the same amount of calories, broccoli provides a much better nutritional return than pasta, but what about price?





Since I’m not shopping at stores very often at the moment, and certainly not touching and picking up items I’m not buying during this current COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak, I’m deferring to a trusty Google search to tell me the cost of broccoli vs. pasta per serving. After digging around for a bit, including on the USDA website, I found the following average numbers, which vary from source to source and from website to website, though maintaining similar overall ranges: Broccoli = $.84 per serving. Pasta = $.77 per serving. The difference is a matter of pennies, but the nutrient index of each food has a strong discrepancy with broccoli being 31 times more nutrient-dense (nutrient to calorie ratio) than pasta. If we're judging the foods based on price alone, pasta could save you a few cents with every bowl. But if we're looking at nutrition as a priority, and the costs are similar, the nod would go to broccoli. It doesn't mean to only eat broccoli and avoid pasta at all costs but illustrates that two affordable foods under a dollar per serving, can provide a totally different nutritional return on investment.

Nutrient to Calorie Ratio

Looking at Dr. Fuhrman’s ANDI scorecard, the foods that provide the best overall nutrient to calorie ratio are leafy green and cruciferous vegetables, fruits, other vegetables, seeds, and legumes. If we can buy those foods in cost-effective ways, they not only save us money but also help us efficiently reach our nutritional needs. Cost-effective foods with the highest ANDI score to consider adding to your shopping cart are the following:

Kale = 1,000

Mustard greens = 1,000

Collard greens = 1,000

Spinach = 707

Romaine lettuce = 510

Brussels sprouts = 490

Carrots = 458

Cauliflower = 315

Mushrooms = 238

Asparagus = 205

Strawberries = 182

Sweet potato = 181

Blueberries = 132

Grapes = 119

Onions = 109

Flax seeds = 103

Orange = 98

Edamame = 98

Cucumber = 87

Tofu = 82

Sesame seeds = 74

Lentils = 72

Peaches = 65

Kidney beans = 64

Green peas = 63

Apple = 53

Peanut butter = 51

Corn = 45

Oatmeal = 36

For perspective, shrimp was the highest-ranking animal food on the chart at 36, ranked below all other plants listed above, and ahead of all other meats and animal proteins. Cola ranks dead last, at 1, under corn chips and vanilla ice cream, at 7 and 9 respectively, or just about 990 points below kale.

As we review the ANDI scorecard, we can get a better understanding of nutrient density, which is nutrients per calorie that a food or beverage provides. Leafy green vegetables rule this category, leading the way as the most nutrient-dense foods we can eat. They also happen to be quite affordable. We'll later discover that they're not nearly as affordable as other categories of plant foods, and they don’t have a long shelf life. They don’t pack many calories, either. In fact, leafy greens contain the lowest calorie density of all foods, being comprised mainly of water, and few actual nutritional calories. This revelation of leafy greens' shortcoming of actual viable nutrition in a given serving doesn't render the ranking system useless but understanding calorie density is helpful here. In short, leafy green vegetables tend to contain about 60-100 calories per pound. Most other vegetables have 200 calories per pound. Fruits have 300 calories per pound. Unrefined complex carbohydrates have 500 calories per pound. Legumes have 600 calories per pound. Animal protein has 1,000 calories per pound. Refined carbohydrates have 1,400 calories per pound. Junk food has 2,300 calories per pound. Nuts and seeds have 2,800 calories per pound. Oil and fat max out at 4,000 calories per pound (the highest of any food). Therefore, you can eat all the kale and collard greens you want for their ANDI score, but you better include some starchy vegetables like potatoes and yams, some complex carbohydrates like oats, rice, and fruits, and some legumes to round out a balanced, affordable diet.



Now that you have seen the ANDI scorecard let's take a look at the price per serving for some of these foods (and other common foods not listed above). Many websites and blogs have already done the heavy lifting and calculations for us, so we’ll give them a proper thank you as we reference some of their figures below, most of them coming from the Economic Research Service at the USDA:

Diversification of Calories

From the ERS at the USDA in 2018: (Price per cup, which we’re calling a serving)


These are the following costs per cup of food for many common fruits, vegetables, and legumes directly from the USDA’s website. I had to use additional sources to find the cost per cup of grains, nuts, and seeds. All the collected data is below in an interesting and revealing list (alphabetically within each food classification, and later ranked as the top 10 most affordable plant foods). Some foods may have a serving size of half a cup, or three-quarter cup, rather than a full cup, or even just a couple of tablespoons when it comes to seeds. For consistency and uniformity, we're using the same measurement of price per cup to determine our price per serving. Please keep that small caveat in mind.




For many foods, there were prices for canned or frozen versions compared to fresh or dried. If those costs varied significantly, I included multiple options to see the price comparison. For example, fresh blueberries compared to frozen blueberries, fresh corn compared to canned corn, and dried beans compared to canned beans, which all provide some insight on the price differences based on the form the food is purchased in:

Fruits

Apples = $.44

Avocados = $.96

Bananas = $.28

Blackberries

Frozen = $.122

Fresh = $1.89

Blueberries

Frozen = $1.15

Fresh = $1.48

Grapes = $.77

Oranges = $.66

Peaches = $.60

Raspberries

Frozen = $1.58

Fresh = $2.29

Strawberries = $.85

Watermelon = $.20

Vegetables

Asparagus = $2.47

Broccoli

Frozen = $.71

Fresh = $.84

Butternut squash = $.82

Cabbage

Green = $.26

Red = $.44

Sauerkraut = $.55

Carrots

Raw = $.24

Cooked = $.30

Cauliflower

Fresh = $.44

Frozen = $.50

Collard greens

Canned = $.48

Fresh = $.65

Cucumbers = $.34

Green beans

Canned = $.38

Fresh = $.69

Green peas

Canned = $.54

Frozen = $.66

Green peppers = $.48

Kale = $.77

Mushrooms = $.57

Mustard greens

Canned = $.42

Fresh = $.98

Olives = $1.51

Onions = $.41

Potatoes

Fresh = $.20

Canned = $.47

Red peppers = $.75

Romaine Lettuce

Full heads = $.33

Hearts = $.63

Spinach

Raw = $.59

Canned = $.65

Frozen = $85

Summer squash = $.85

Sweet Corn

Canned = $.48

Fresh = $2.20

Sweet potatoes = $.57

Tomatoes

Canned = $.49

Roma & plum = $.53

Large round = $.83

Grape & cherry = $1.43

Legumes

Black beans

Dried = $.24

Canned = $.56

White beans

Dried = $.26

Canned = $.52

Kidney beans

Dried = $.27

Canned = $.51

Lentils = $.22

Lima beans

Dried = $.34

Canned = $.77

Navy beans

Dried = $.24

Canned = $.56

Pinto beans

Dried = $.17

Canned = $.48

According to Benjamin Smith over at Money Inc., these are the costs of nuts, which were listed in pounds, so I had to crunch some numbers to reflect a five-ounce serving of each nut, which is approximately one cup, to compare the same volume of each food to one another to provide the cost per similar size serving (even if a recommended dietary serving of nuts is just one ounce, not five ounces)

Nuts

Almonds = $4.35

Brazil nuts = $2.30

Cashews = $2.80

Hazelnuts = $.30

Macadamia nuts = $7.80

Pecans = $2.20

Pine nuts = $7.20

Pistachios = $.80

Walnuts = $2.65

Like nuts, the actual serving size for seeds is much smaller than the serving size of one cup of a given food. We have been using one cup as a "serving" to compare the same volume size of one food to another. It was hard to find a list with the cost per serving for an assortment of edible seeds. After researching, I decided that the most logical and practical way to determine real-world costs was to go to Amazon and search each seed, one at a time. I compared at least two brands per package of seed, calculating their portion sizes from tablespoons to cups, to find an equivalent cost per cup to compare to the other foods. Then, I took the mean cost of the various brands of a given seed to determine an approximate average cost per cup, which we’re calling per serving, in today’s market. I gathered data for the most commonly consumed seeds. Here are the results:

Seeds

Chia seeds = $4.77

Flaxseeds = $1.21

Hemp seeds = $3.18

Pumpkin seeds = $2.19

Sesame seeds = $1.88

Sunflower seeds = $2.67

When looking up cost per serving of grains, the USDA left me hanging. Here's what I discovered via the Internet for some of the most popular grains:

Grains

Bulgur wheat = $.48

Oats = $.18

Quinoa = $.24

Rice = $.18

Though the USDA website led me astray after providing valuable content for price per cup/serving for fruits, vegetables, and legumes, omitting grains, nuts, and seeds, the ERS/USDA website is quite revealing and worth exploring to learn more about our food system in general. You can look up the average forecasts for price ranges for U.S. commodities, and view the World Agriculture Supply and Demand estimates. You can read about food insecurity among children (kids who don't get enough adequate food to eat at one or more times during the year due to lack of finances or other resources for obtaining food). Heartbreaking. You can also see the cost estimates for foodborne illnesses. If you want, you can even spy on the monthly U.S. Dairy Situation Document. If you can interpret the data in the downloadable spreadsheet, you can watch a sinking ship. All that to say, the ERS and USDA were very helpful websites in my effort to determine the lowest costs of foods per serving, at least for most categories, while providing some interesting insight and perspectives about our food system at large.



Given the fact that I used multiple resources for determining the cost of plant foods per serving when a fully complete list of such food prices was not available upon my deep inspection, some of these numbers are bound to have variations. Some data came from the USDA from 2018 containing officially documented prices of foods per cup, other data came from more recent searches of what today's market reflects. With the serving sizes varying, needing to be recalculated, and averaged, there are bound to be some fluctuations with the results. Please take that with a grain of sea salt.

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. After spending hours on the USDA website comparing prices of common foods from numerous food groups, and searching dozens of other websites to find additional average prices per servings of other foods, I have come up with a list of the top ten most cost-effective plant foods, purely based on price per serving.

Top 10 Most Cost-Effective Plant Foods

Looking at all these common plant-based whole foods evaluated thus far, the ten most cost-effective foods you can buy, based on cost per cup/serving from my collected data, are the following:

  1. Dried pinto beans = $.17

  2. Rice = $.18

  3. Oats = $.18

  4. Potatoes = $.20

  5. Watermelon = $.20

  6. Lentils = $.22

  7. Dried navy beans = $.24

  8. Dried black beans = $.24

  9. Raw carrots = $.24

  10. Green cabbage = $.26

Other foods that cost less than 35 cents per serving include, dried white beans, dried kidney beans, bananas, romaine lettuce, dried Lima beans, cooked carrots, cucumbers, and hazelnuts. The list of foods for less than two quarters ($.50) per serving is twice as long.

Though we provided a list of cheapest foods based on cost alone, we know that there are other factors that play a part in making a decision about what to buy based on price and nutrition. Soda is cheap and full of calories. In some rural areas, you can still find old soda machines selling cans for a quarter. In which case, cola could make our top ten list of cheapest foods (source of liquid calories, and 140 at that). But we know better, and for the same price, carrots or cabbage provide a lot more