Dumb and Dumber: The Flaws of Measuring Food Costs Using Cost Per Nutrient and Cost Per Calorie

A (trick) question for readers: Which of the following is a better value?

1) Two pounds of collard greens (about 300 calories) for $1.49

2) Two pounds of 85% lean ground beef (about 1,300 calories) for $4.59

Which would you pick?

Looking purely at the raw cost of each item, the collards are, duh, obviously cheaper. But there are other, more complicated, ways of looking at food costs.

You could consider the cost on a per calorie basis. If you consider the two foods this way, then the ground beef becomes the better deal. Sure, it may cost three times as much as the collards, but it yields more than four times the calories.

You could also consider the cost on a per nutrient basis. This yields a different result yet again: the collards, which are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants, dominate the ground beef.

So, when we try and look beyond the simple dollar cost of two simple foods, we come up with completely contradictory results. Confused? Me too.

Which brings me to the point of this post: Be careful. When you are considering the relative value of the foods you purchase, don't put all your faith in either cost per calorie or cost per nutrient. Both measures have their merits, but both can also be extremely misleading. In this post I'm going to focus on the problems and deceptions that can occur when we look at foods in these two ways.

Let's start with the weaknesses of cost per nutrient. I'll start by confessing that I like this measure and I believe it provides useful value. If consumers could see easy-to-understand information in stores about the rich range of nutrients in inexpensive foods like lentils, carrots, potatoes, beans, as well as other in-season fruits and veggies, they'd likely buy these foods a lot more often.

But which nutrients are we measuring, exactly? And how do they compare? Is Vitamin A worth more than Vitamin C (which I guess must be worth more than Vitamin E)? Is precious Lutein more valuable than boring old fiber? And if we were to slavishly measure everything by cost per nutrient, then mega-vitamin pills would be the best bargain of all. And that, unfortunately, would subvert the entire purpose of using this measure in the first place: to encourage people to eat healthy and inexpensive greens, fruits and veggies.

Furthermore, the cost per nutrient measure could be gamed quite easily. An example: what's to stop the branded boxed cereal industry from aggressively promoting the vitamins, minerals and nutrients they chemically add back to their cereals? Who knows--they might even take the next step and make the claim that their sugar- and salt-laden cereals boost immunity! (Wait, you say they already tried that? Oh.)

Let's now address the weakness in using cost per calorie, which is in my view the dumbest and most deceptive way to measure food costs.

Here's why: at $3.99, a 12 ounce bag of fat- and salt-laden Doritos should seem like a ripoff, considering all the processing, packaging, transport and marketing costs that make it one of the most expensive second-order foods in your grocery store. But on a cost per calorie basis, things start to look a little screwy. Once you divide your bag of Doritos by 1,600 (that's the calorie count in a 12 ounce bag), and then you divide your collard greens by their measly 300 calories, you'll be horrified to find that collards cost 1/2 a cent per calorie, while Doritos only cost 1/5th of a cent per calorie.

That's right, by when you measure by cost per calorie, collard greens cost two and a half times more than Doritos! Only in the utterly confused food industry can we manage to make a two pound armload of collard greens at $1.49 look more expensive than a $3.99 12-ounce bag of Doritos.

Let me savage on this ridiculous cost per calorie metric further. Think about this: on a cost per calorie basis, zero-calorie diet soda is one of the cruelest ripoffs in all of food--it literally costs infinity. And negative-calorie ice water doesn't compute at all--in theory the store should pay you for buying chilled water!

It can be useful to look at these non-typical ways of measuring food value, but don't get too wrapped up in them. They can mislead, and they can be easily gamed by skilled food marketers. Use them as additional information to consider, never as the only consideration.

Related Posts:
Ten Tips on How to Cut Your Food Budget Using the 80/20 Rule
How to Feel Less Hungry on Fewer Calories: Hacking the Satiety Factor of Foods
How to Resist Irresistible Food
How Food Companies Hide Sugar in Plain Sight
15 Creative Tips to Avoid Holiday Overeating

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