Still, from a policy perspective, he argues, $1.50 a day is chump change. "That's the cost of a cup of coffee," he says. "It's trivial compared to the cost of heart disease or diabetes, which is hundreds of billions of dollars" — both in terms of health care costs and lost productivity.
"And so that relatively small difference," he says, "should really be an incentive for policymakers" to find ways to help low-income families bridge that extra $1.50 per day.
The researchers evaluated the cost of food by types of eating pattern — for example, a diet heavy on vegetables, nuts and fruits, like the Mediterranean diet, versus one rich in processed foods and meat. They also looked at price differences within specific food categories, such as grains, proteins, fats and dairy. The biggest price differences arose when it came to proteins/meats: Healthier, leaner cuts, they found, were on average about 29 cents more per serving. Only one of the studies included in the meta-analysis examined the cost of restaurant foods stratified by healthfulness — and that's definitely an area, the authors say, where more research is needed.
The research, published this week in the British Medical Journal Open, comes as House and Senate negotiators on Capitol Hill are debating a new farm bill — including billions of dollars in cuts to the federal food-assistance program formerly known as food stamps. It's now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
"This study couldn't come at a more relevant time," says Josh Wachs, chief strategy officer for Share Our Strength.
His group teaches low-income families who rely on food-assistance programs like SNAP how to navigate the supermarket to make better choices on a tight budget — tips like buying frozen and canned fruits and vegetables when fresh is too expensive, or teaching them how to cut up a whole chicken, which costs less than buying individual breasts, wings and other parts separately. Another key tip: When comparing two items, focus on the price per unit rather than the total price.
"We believe that education can help put healthy food in reach for many more families," Wachs tells The Salt. But subsidies for such education programs provided through SNAP could also be imperiled if the program's funding is cut, he says.
And even for those of us who aren't working under supertight budget constraints at the grocery store, the results of the meta-analysis are eye-opening, says Mozaffarian.
"Just as an excuse to not eat healthy," he says, "for most Americans, I think price is not an excuse."