A diet of starchy carbohydrates - potatoes, rice, bread or pasta - combined with vegetables is what the world’s poor have subsisted on for centuries. That is because it is cheap. Add some fruit, chicken or fish and you have all the components of the government’s Eatwell Guide. None of it is expensive. Supermarkets sell apples for less than 10p. A serving of spaghetti costs 3p and a portion of carrots costs 4p (plus the cost of boiling a pan of water). Meat and fish are more pricey but you can buy 100 grams of chicken fillet for less than 40p and a tin of sardines for 34p.
With food prices at historic lows and incomes at historic highs, the idea that British people are fat and badly nourished because we cannot afford to eat healthily is perverse, and yet it is widely believed.
With food prices at historic lows and incomes at historic highs, the idea that British people are fat and badly nourished because we cannot afford to eat healthily is perverse, and yet it is widely believed. When it was suggested last week that we should eat ten fruit and vegetables a day (rather than the official recommendation of five-a-day), the Food Foundation claimed that this would be ‘impossible’ for people on low incomes because ‘healthy foods are three time more expensive calorie-for-calorie than unhealthy foods’.1
The phrase ‘calorie-for-calorie’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. Measuring the cost of food by the calorie makes sense in countries where people struggle to consume enough energy. In Britain, however, we have the opposite problem. Many of us are consuming too much energy for our sedentary lifestyles.
We do not eat to reach a quota of calories. We eat until we are full. And so, if we want to measure the cost of a healthy diet, we need to look at the cost per meal or the cost per serving, not the cost per 1,000 calories. In an Institute of Economic Affairs report published today (Cheap as Chips2) I look at the price of dozens of food products in two of Britain’s leading supermarkets and find that the cost of a government-approved diet is typically cheaper than a diet of processed food, ready-meals and takeaways.
Time, convenience, taste and a lack of cooking skills are much better explanations for why people choose to buy relatively expensive ‘junk food’ rather than relatively inexpensive fruit and veg.
It is true that people on low incomes tend to eat fewer vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood and dairy, but this cannot be explained by price. Time, convenience, taste and a lack of cooking skills are much better explanations for why people choose to buy relatively expensive ‘junk food’ rather than relatively inexpensive fruit and veg. If price was the main driver, we would be eating far more vegetables than we do and sugary drinks would be only consumed by the rich (the rest of us would settle for tap water).
This is not to say that price is totally irrelevant. No doubt lettuce consumption fell when prices were hiked during the recent ‘salad crisis’.3 But in a country where we can achieve our five-a-day for less than 30p, we must question the grand schemes of anti-obesity campaigners who think they can fundamentally change our eating habits by taxing one group of foods and subsidising another. Unless an elaborate and vastly bureaucratic system of taxes and subsidies leads to implausibly large changes in consumption habits, it would be a form of middle class welfare in which the poor subsidised the wealthy.