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  • Writer's pictureRobert 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:


Apples = $.44

Avocados = $.96

Bananas = $.28


Frozen = $.122

Fresh = $1.89


Frozen = $1.15

Fresh = $1.48

Grapes = $.77

Oranges = $.66

Peaches = $.60


Frozen = $1.58

Fresh = $2.29

Strawberries = $.85

Watermelon = $.20


Asparagus = $2.47


Frozen = $.71

Fresh = $.84

Butternut squash = $.82


Green = $.26

Red = $.44

Sauerkraut = $.55


Raw = $.24

Cooked = $.30


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


Fresh = $.20

Canned = $.47

Red peppers = $.75

Romaine Lettuce

Full heads = $.33

Hearts = $.63


Raw = $.59

Canned = $.65

Frozen = $85

Summer squash = $.85

Sweet Corn

Canned = $.48

Fresh = $2.20

Sweet potatoes = $.57


Canned = $.49

Roma & plum = $.53

Large round = $.83

Grape & cherry = $1.43


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)


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:


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:


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 nutrition in a single serving for the price of a quarter. So, let’s take a look at how the healthiest foods on the ANDI score compare to the cheapest foods, to see if we can pull from both scoring methods to find the ultimate nutritional champion based on nutrients per calorie, per dollar.

Creating a mathematical equation to weigh the significance of the ANDI score against the total calories per serving (which contributes to a percentage of overall calorie intake), against the price per serving, is a bit too complex for me, though I’m sure a method could be developed. For simplicity sake, I’m including the top three foods with a perfect ANDI score of 1,000 in my top five. These are also some of the cheapest of all foods, even though they lack total calories. Then, I included two of the foods with the lowest cost per serving, but which contain substantial calories, while having a significant ANDI score compared to other plant foods. This way, we emphasize the healthiest foods based on their nutrient density (nutrition per calorie, which is a measure of health), and we highlight the cheapest foods money can buy, providing a profound return on investment. By doing so, I managed to include multiple food groups, with three distinct types, in the list of the top five cheapest healthy foods.

The Top 5 Overall Most Affordable Foods Based On Price and Health Benefits

Here’s what I’ve concluded. The top 5 most affordable foods, based on their nutrient density and nutritional return on investment, factoring calorie density, nutritional yield, and cost per serving, are:

Canned mustard greens

ANDI = 1,000

Calories = 100 per pound

Price = $.42 per serving

Canned collard greens

ANDI = 1,000

Calories = 100 per pound

Price = $.48 per serving

Fresh Kale

ANDI = 1,000

Calories = 60 per pound

Price = $.79 per serving


ANDI = 72

Calories = 600 per pound

Price = $.22 per serving

Sweet potatoes

ANDI = 181

Calories = 500 per pound

Price = $.57 per serving

Lentils made both lists for cheapest overall food and cheapest food based on nutrition. Providing more overall nutrition than rice or oats, and more calories than leafy greens or potatoes, while still offering exceptional health benefits, lentils are arguably the most nutritious food for the price. Lentils are also shelf-stable, common allergen-free, and can be cooked in batches to last for days, helping you save time and money.

To crown a grand champion of the cheapest, healthiest food you can possibly eat, the winner is the mighty lentil!

Before you rush out and buy all the lentils from the store, remember that there are so many foods that are right on the heels of lentils when it comes to price and health, and the more diversity, the better. Foods that go great with lentils include rice and potatoes, two of the other cheapest foods on the planet. Add kale or collard greens for the epic ANDI score, and you're set with one of the cheapest, healthiest meals you can assemble.

In addition to your breakfast of champions, which may include oats, berries, and nuts, you can now have confidence in your lunch and dinner of champions, with meals based around lentils, rice, beans, potatoes, and greens that won't break your bank, and which will keep your body strong and healthy with sufficient calories, volume, nutrition, and flavor. This is the smart way to fuel your passion for health and wellness during times of economic uncertainties, as well as all year long. This is a real foundation from which to build on.

Shelf Stability

Not only do these champion cost-saving and health-promoting foods come at an incredibly affordable price, but they also provide, in many cases, a robust nutritional profile, especially the calorie and nutrient-dense legumes on the list. Furthermore, many of these foods have a long shelf life, excluding fresh produce. As many of us speculated all along, the king and queen of low-cost foods, based on price alone, are beans and rice. Their cost per serving is so similar, either one could take the crown on any given day, tipping their hat to their neighbor, the lentil, who stands atop the podium as the overall, comprehensive leader.

To quote the late comedian, Mitch Hedberg, “Rice is great when you're hungry, and you want two thousand of something.” Thanks for the insight, Mitch. Those were the days. Whether you want two thousand of something or just a burrito bowl, you can’t go wrong with rice, beans, and vegetables for the ultimate cost-effective meal. In fact, a full serving of rice, beans, and carrots, three full cups of food in our example, would run you 59 cents. You could even save a few cents by replacing carrots with potatoes or lentils, which would pack more calories into your less-than-dollar-menu lunch. I always figured there was a reason why burrito bowls are my favorite meal – delicious, nutritious, and super affordable. Burrito bowls are an absolute staple in my diet as a plant-based athlete of twenty-five years, and they are so versatile too. The foundation of rice and beans typically stays the same, but from there, you can add lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, salsa, olives, tofu, lentils, potatoes, mushrooms, peppers, or anything else. It’s your burrito bowl. Load it up.

It may pique curiosity to see some nuts listed as very affordable foods, but lest we forget the serving size of nut is so small, in many cases, just a few nuts, and a recommended dietary serving size is only one ounce in comparison to our five-ounce sample, and their calorie density is so high, at 2,800 calories per pound, it becomes easier to digest the reality that specific bulk nuts really are quite feasible. While they may seem like they are a premium food, even in the bulk bin, just a single pound will get you through 16 servings, often lasting weeks or months, compared to a pound of potatoes lasting for about 16 minutes on your plate before you devour them. Not all nuts are budget-friendly, though. Some nuts are the highest cost per serving of all foods we analyzed, particularly almonds, pine nuts, and Macadamia nuts. But nuts are incredibly shelf-stable. Nuts are a food you can have in your pantry for a year, open the jar, and they'll still taste like they were recently harvested. Nut butters also last a long time, while packing a lot of calories into a small container, for a relatively low price. They are also incredibly versatile, and can go on pretty much anything. I've even put peanut butter on pasta – you know – like peanut sauce on a Pad Thai. There are plenty of shelf-stable foods to buy in bulk for mere pennies, such as dried beans, dried peas, lentils, oats, nuts, seeds, nut butters, seed butters, pasta, rice, and the list goes on. Especially when stocking up on foods to last for a long time, these low cost, high nutrition foods will be necessities for your pantry to see you through the long haul.

Like numerous aspects of cost and nutrition, it’s all relative. Which foods do you like most? What are you most likely to eat? And how can you create cost-effective meal plans given the data provided? Those are all questions worth exploring as we continue to analyze our budget-conscious grocery list. It doesn’t matter how cheap a food is, if you won’t eat it, it’s a bad investment. Likewise, if you’re unaware of the true cost of foods, you’ll likely make some poor decisions, throwing money away on foods that are overpriced compared to their nutritional yield. This includes most processed foods such as corn chips or sugary beverages. Regardless of how "cheap" they appear – or risking an investment on foods with a susceptibility to spoil, such as the case with fresh produce -if you're not sure you will actually eat it. The more packaging and marketing surrounding a specific food, the more likely the inflated cost is as well. And often, the more packaging used, typically, the further that food is removed from its natural (healthiest) state.

Allergen-friendly Foods

According to the U.S. Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the law identifies eight most common allergen foods, which account for 90 percent of food allergic reactions. The eight most common allergen foods are:

  1. Cow’s milk

  2. Eggs

  3. Fish

  4. Shellfish

  5. Tree nuts

  6. Peanuts

  7. Wheat

  8. Soy

This is the order in which they were listed on the FDA website. They are easily identified as the top four being animal-based, and the bottom four being plant-based, including some of our very cost-effective plant-based foods, such as wheat, soy, and particular nuts. You may not have an allergy to any of these foods, but many people do. It is important to find alternatives to these healthy, affordable plant-based foods if your body rejects them. So, if wheat tears up your stomach, or if soy makes you bloated, or if nuts cause a dangerous reaction, it’s time to find some other cost-effective plant-based foods to put on your plate. Luckily, most fruits, vegetables, legumes, and seeds are common allergen-free, and some are the absolute best foods you can possibly eat for health for their price.

It’s quite amazing when you really look at the numbers, to consider that potatoes, one of the most popular foods in America, cost only twenty cents per serving, and that dried beans are just as cheap, if not cheaper in some cases. Potatoes and beans are both staples in diets for not just plant-based eaters, but among cultures throughout the globe. According to the Blue Zones research, legumes are the most common food associated with the longest-living populations regardless of location on the map, from South America to Asia, and everywhere in between. Creating a meal with starchy carbohydrates like a full serving of potatoes as the base, along with a full serving of steamed broccoli, and a full serving of black beans could cost you about $1.28 for a big plate of food that is both calorie and nutrient-dense. Add a side salad of romaine lettuce and kale for just another $1.12. That is a colorful, hearty, and heart-healthy meal for a grand total of $2.40. And according to the USDA, that's on the high end, because I chose broccoli and kale in this example, which are four times the cost of potatoes and beans. Remember, the USDA says a 2,000-calorie diet can be met with healthy whole plant foods for as little as $2.40 for an entire day, not just a single meal, as I have outlined. Using the lists above, you can mix and match foods to determine the estimated costs of meals you create. Imagine preparing an entire dinner for fifty cents. Statistics reveal that it's possible, though you could splurge and double the serving sizes and still come in at 99 cents for a plant-based, whole-food meal. When you're looking for common allergen-free staples, that won't break the bank, while supplying sufficient nutrients and calories, look to these leaders:

  • Potatoes

  • Yams

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Lentils

  • Beans

  • Rice

  • Oats

  • Squash

  • Bananas

  • Brussels sprouts

  • Peas

Quality calorie per dollar return without subsidies

Speaking of 99-cent meals, it may come as no surprise that without government subsidies provided to agricultural farmers, a common burger at a fast food restaurant would cost more like ten or twenty dollars, rather than one dollar. This is because of government-subsidized crops that are grown to produce feed for livestock (an insensitive term referring to farm animals that humans plan to eat). Livestock itself is also a subsidized commodity.

From USA Facts, these are the Top 10 commodities receiving subsidies in 2016:

  1. Corn

  2. Sugar

  3. Soybeans

  4. Wheat

  5. Cotton

  6. Livestock

  7. Peanuts

  8. Hay and forage

  9. Sorghum

  10. Rice

The sources for this data came from the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC), the USDA Economic Research Service, and the U.S. Agriculture reports to the World Trade Organization.

Basically, the federal government provides financial assistance and insurance to farmers in the form of direct payments, crop insurance, and loans to keep up with production and demand. Due to recent tariffs issued by China, this year's farm subsidy programs could be one of the highest in U.S. history. From looking at the records, it appears that the single biggest year for federal government farm subsidies was in 2000 when farmers were awarded a staggering $32.1 billion. Contrast that with our example above from 2016, which reflected $8.5 billion in subsidies. Taking another look at the numbers, in 2017, American farmers received $11.5 billion in subsidies, which accounted for 15.3 percent of a $75.1 billion total net farm income. Again, analyzing the crops listed for 2016, more than half of the crops go directly to feeding livestock, lowering the cost of animal protein, making it possible to have dollar menu items at fast-food restaurants on every street corner in America and around the world. Some of these crops are also mono-crops and require the clear-cutting of forests, including the Amazon. And of course, an immense amount of land and water is required to raise animals to be slaughtered for human consumption.

What that means is that an incredible amount of resources go into producing food-like products that are not even the most cost-effective when factoring the true costs of food and diet-related diseases, medications, treatments, lack of productivity, early-onset disease, and increased all cause mortality, commonly associated with processed animal foods (recognized as carcinogens by the World Health Organization). They certainly don't land anywhere on the nutritional map with insignificant ANDI scores, and low nutritional return on investment. Even though many of the subsidized crops are grown to feed livestock, some, like corn and soybeans, also make it into the food supply. Note: both are often genetically modified and should be consumed organically as often as possible. Subsidies could bring the price down for a few common plant-based foods, but as we’ve determined, you don’t need to rely on government subsidies when the foundation of your diet is made up of potatoes, beans, lentils, green vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, and most importantly, your favorite plant foods that you will actually eat. Those latter food crops may receive some level of government assistance, but they don’t make the top ten list, and their prices appear to remain fairly stable year after year. In general, the less reliance we have on government subsidies for our food, the more empowered we become. Of course, an obvious option is to grow some of your own food to reduce labor, transportation, energy, and environmental costs, but that is often easier said than done in our urban environments. It is worth exploring and seeing what you can cultivate on your own with home and community gardens. Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and farmers markets are some other ways to get fresh produce without relying on large-scale farm government subsidies, but you may end up paying a premium for seasonal items with a short shelf life, so buying bulk items and growing some of your own food may be the best overall money-saving combination.

Can Eating Healthy Foods Really Be This Affordable?

To further get to the bottom of this quest to determine just how affordable a plant-based diet can be, I looked through a 50-page PDF on the USDA website written by Andrea Carlson and Elizabeth Frazao, from the Economic Research Service, who tackled this topic: Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure the Price, which they wrote about in 2012. They covered the following key areas from their Abstract:

Most Americans consume diets that do not meet federal dietary recommendations. A common explanation is that healthier foods are more expensive than less healthy foods. To investigate this assumption, the authors compare the prices of healthy and less healthy foods using three different price metrics:

The price of food energy

The price of edible weight

The price of an average portion

Here’s how they conducted their study: The authors estimated the cost for the 4,439 food items by price per calorie, per edible gram, and per average portion consumed. The study drew on three data sets: The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to estimate the types and quantities of foods consumed, the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) food prices database for food prices (access to that could have really saved me a lot of time in my own research and calculations, analyzing various foods based on price per serving!), and the USDA Food Pattern Equivalent Database for information on food group classification, saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium content.

Their findings were both predictable and interesting, with some surprises along the way. Some of the more obvious results were that foods high in calories (read processed foods, refined carbohydrates, sugary foods, meats, junk foods, and sweet beverages) had a low cost per calorie. Think of the cost of a soda, which is just a few coins in one of those vending machines that still exist outside of cheap motels, which contains 140 calories in a 12-ounce can that cost than a buck to acquire. Conversely, vegetables, which are packed full of nutrition, particularly leafy green vegetables, were deemed to be on the expensive end when comparing cost per calorie (which doesn’t factor in nutritional yield). Since vegetables don’t contain many calories, their price per calorie goes up, but 100 out of 100 people agree that there is a greater nutritional return on a salad compared to a can of Coke. So it was no surprise that high- calorie foods are relatively cheap, or incredibly cheap, while providing little to no nutrition – Big Gulp or Slurpee, anyone?

Another predictable outcome, which actually caught me off guard because most of my focus has been on fruits, vegetables, and legumes, the three classifications of food that tend to provide the highest net return as far as nutrition, satiation, convenience, cost, taste, accessibility, and total preference. At least from my perspective, grains were across the board the cheapest foods, according to their research. Grains are super inexpensive to buy in bulk, and when they are cooked with water, their volume and weight increases dramatically, without any additional calorie spike (since there are no calories in water), therefore making their price per calorie per portion and/or serving very, very appealing. And remember, that wheat, sorghum, and rice are all subsidized crops, making them even cheaper. Rice and oats both made my top three list of affordable foods, based on price alone, just a penny behind dried pinto beans.

Other interesting findings involve the price per calorie. We often calculate and determine the price per serving, or in common lists of food classifications, we use price per pound. It seems that price per serving is likely the most useful to the consumer, but in this analysis, the authors listed some foods by price per calorie. Some of those foods packing a powerful punch per calorie include chickpeas and pinto beans coming in at the bank-breaking price of 0.03 cents per calorie. Our good friend, the banana, came sliding in with a whopping 0.1 cents per calorie (which I actually thought through in my head, and used the calculator on my phone to confirm, factoring 105 calories for a typical banana sold for about 10 cents which would be about one-tenth of one percent cost per calorie if my calculations are correct. I’ll just assume their figures are right. They have access to the cost per calorie database, after all. And by the way, in contrast to some of those sensational, sizzling deals on chickpeas, pinto beans, and bananas at literally a fraction of a cent per calorie, the vegetable on the highest end, according to their study, was watercress at a staggering 37.6 cents per calorie (comprised of mostly water, leaving very few actual calories in the food purchased), and blackberries (plentiful in my native home state of Oregon) on the high end for fruits, at 2.8 cents per calorie. The numbers alone tell you a story, but of course, there is always more to the story. Grains and legumes are cheap, and actually fill you up nicely with calories, bulk, and volume. But foods like watercress do very little aside from making you ask yourself why you're eating watercress (though they do have a perfect 1,000 ANDI score). So, what did this study actually find when answering the question, Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive?

Here are the conclusions:

  • Foods low in calories for a given weight tend to have a higher price when the price is measured per calorie – vegetables and fruits without added fat or sugar are low in calories and, by this metric, tend to be a very expensive way of eating.

  • Conversely, still using the price-per-calorie measure, less healthy (moderation, i.e., animal and processed) foods high in saturated fat and/or added sugars tend to be high in calories and have a low price per calorie.

  • However, when measured on the basis of edible weight or average portion size, vegetables and fruit are less expensive than most dairy, protein (meat), and moderation (processed) foods.

Their summary suggested:

When making food choices, consumers may need to consider the entire cost of their diets. Cheap food that produces few nutrients may actually be “expensive” for the consumer from a nutritional economy perspective, whereas a food with a higher retail price that provides large amounts of nutrients may actually be cheap.

Whether my conclusion that lentils, rice, beans, vegetables, grains, and leafy greens provide the best price per nutritional return or this study's conclusion that across the board, plants in general are the most cost-effective food we can consume for our health, the bottom line is that plant-based diets are affordable, and nutritious, and should be embraced for the money- and life-saving impact they have on all of us.

In the interest of saving money, while providing your body with adequate calories and nutrition, without direct reliance on government subsidies, there is a strong case for eating plants to get the most bang for your buck, and the best health for your body.


Federal Farm Subsidies – What the Data Says:

Money Inc., The Ten Most Expensive Types of Nuts in the World:

USDA Economic Research Service Fruit and Vegetable Prices:

USDA Economic Research Service Data and Products:

Meatanomics – The Bizarre Economics of Meat and Dairy:


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