On the "Value" of Low-Calorie Food

You head over to your favorite breakfast cafe one morning, and you see that the owners have (finally!) changed up the menu by adding some new healthy food options. Normally, you just buy your usual bran muffin and a coffee, but today you have a potentially interesting new option.

1) a bran muffin, 400 calories, for $2.49, or
2) a "low-calorie" bran muffin, 320 calories, for $2.49.

Question: which of these two choices is the better deal?

Here's another one: You're sitting down to dinner in a casual restaurant, and these two entrees on the menu really grab you:

1) The Homemade Lasagna Special, 900 calories, for $10.99.
2) Caesar Salad with Grilled Chicken (a "heart-healthy, low-calorie" entree), only 475 calories, for $9.99.

Which of those is a better deal?

Now, before you answer, I have one more question for you. which item--in both cases--do you think yields higher profits for the restaurant?

Food for thought, isn't it?

So now, let me open this up to you, dear readers: how should an empowered consumer respond to this? What's your take?

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The Calico Cat said...

scenario 1 - eat the normal muffin, the low calorie one probably has replacers that are not that great just ot shave off calories.

scenario 2, why are you going to the restaurant? Do you have a hankering for pasta? Then why on Earth would you switch to salad? Save your calories, by eating half & taking the rest home for lunch tomorrow.

profit margin = if I cared about that, I would be making bran muffins & lasagne at home.

Joanne said...

My plan is to buy neither and to get my butt in the kitchen and make myself a batch of muffins AND a batch of lasgana. From scratch. It'll cost less AND be fewer calories AND will probably taste better. The end.

Laura said...

1 - Agree with Calico Cat that the low-cal one might have a ton of junk in it. If I could see the ingredients list and know what was in it (and it was just that they cut fat/sugar without replacing it with additives), that one would be better value TO ME. To someone who is really struggling to make ends meet, high calorie would be better value.

2 - Again, as long as the dressing doesn't have junk in it, that would prob be a better value TO ME. I also love to cook, so the fact that lasagna is more complicated (vs throwing together a salad) may make it more valuable to someone else, but not to me.

With labor being so cheap, I'm going to assume it's nominal cost to the restaurant to prepare a lasagna vs make a grilled chicken salad. On the one hand, you do have to weigh that the lasagna probably must be made in a large batch (of which a lot would get thrown out each night) whereas the salad could be made to order, but on the other hand, the ingredients in lasagna are probably cheaper than the ingredients in the salad (depending on what recipe is used). The descriptions don't sound particularly high end, so I'd assume this is a generic family restaurant (e.g., Applebee's) where they're using cheap ingredients like boxed pasta, canned tomatoes, bulk cheese, etc, and not homemade pasta, fresh tomatoes, artisan cheese, etc. However, produce is rarely cheap, and anything with meat is always going to be costlier, so the food cost for the caesar salad would be much higher. Depending upon how many covers you're doing and how much waste you have, I'd say it's a toss up as to which makes higher profits.

For the muffin, it depends what they're doing to make it low-calorie. If they're buying more expensive replacements for the original (e.g., Splenda instead of white sugar), the low-cal one is costlier; if they're just omitting all the extra fat/sugar that goes into making the first one as tasty as possible, the regular one is costlier. Again, though, I'd consider waste, and would assume that in today's at-least-trying-to-be-healthy society, something low-cal would fly off the shelves more than a regular muffin. Plus, it's bran, so that's already eliminating people who just want something yummy, since "bran muffin" has a health connotation to it. So I think the waste from the regular bran muffin would be more, making the low-calorie muffin higher profit.

Maybe I overanalyzed, so I'm not sure the point you were trying to make?

Daniel said...

These are good insights so far.

A quick response to Laura before I throw it back to readers for more thoughts on value: the chicken caesar salad will likely have higher profit margins (and lasagna will have lower margins) mainly due to the lasgna's high input costs of meat and cheese.

But my main point is this: is it worth it to purchase a meal that provides barely half as many calories at nearly the same price?


Matt @ SpoonMatters said...

Value is subjective, so here is my take on it:

1. If I'm eating a muffin at a coffee shop, I'm doing it for the social aspect of being out. I would probably go for the low-calorie muffin (provided the ingredients were good, like using apple sauce instead of butter to make it low-fat) since I'm trying to lose weight. My reasoning is that I'm going to spend the same amount either way, so I might as well choose the muffin that fits better with my fitness goals.

2. I agree with Calico Cat here, why eat salad if I'm in a restaurant? Assuming I'm looking at lasagna because I went to an Italian restaurant, I did not show up there to eat salad. I made a conscious decision to spoil myself and I intend to do it! ^_^

The "value" I see in these choices varies because my reasons for being in that situation are very different.

As far as profit margin, I think Laura is on the right track. It could go either way depending on the cafe/restaurant in question. In both cases, however, I expect the profit margin to be higher on the beverage I order than on the food itself, at least in terms of percentage.

Colbeagle said...

As a short female with an only modestly active lifestyle, whose current healthy body weight is both hard-won and maintained only through vigilance, my top priority is my calorie intake - this trumps the small price quibbles involved here, and it trumps any desire I have to stick it to the man by purchasing as many cheap calories as I possibly can.

Therefore, for breakfast I'm going for the lower calorie muffin. I don't care much about 'additives' (which in this case could be as simple as substituting applesauce for oil) and I'm apparently spending 2.49 for breakfast either way, so I'm going to do it in such a way that my calorie budget for the day doesn't start out completely shot.

As for the lasagna/salad conundrum, the choice boils down to whether the lasagna can be stretched to two meals - 900 calories is simply way too many for a single meal for me. If the serving isn't big enough to save half for tomorrow and still feel satisfying such that I won't be craving dessert or late night snacks (and it probably won't be - pasta eats up calories fast and as you noted, meat and cheese are pricey), it's not worth it to me. Ditto if I'm on my way somewhere and can't take a doggybag. Salad for me. Someone with higher calorie needs (dudes, tall folks, runners, construction workers, etc.) would make an entirely different calculation.

Frankly, I'm always a bit dubious of the whole "buying as many calories for your dollar as possible" thing. Obesity and obesity-related health problems are generally correlated with lower incomes in the US and similar countries - whatever the societal problem with healthy eating is, it isn't a problem purchasing enough calories.

Lo said...

So, here's a larger question to throw into the mix? Do you know anything about the quality of the ingredients at either of these places?

There's a big difference between a lasagne made with grass-fed beef/sausage, organic tomatoes, and RBGH-free cheese... and the alternative typically found in a "casual restaurant".

And what about the additives in either of those bran muffins?

As far as value goes, a cost-for-calorie model isn't something I'm all that interested in seeing. Less cost for less calories doesn't necessarily ensure good, nutritional food.

I'd much rather see a cost-for-quality model.

Sally said...

I'll make the choice to eat the dish that was made from scratch using real ingredients with no weird substitutions (like chemical additives or applesauce for butter) to make it lower in calories or "healthier." If I want to eat something lower in calories, I'll eat half of it.

I don't pay for calories; I pay for quality.

Marcia said...

Well, first of all, you have to look at the value to you. In the restaurant aspect, I'd look at it this way:

1. Which one is healthier?
2. Which one will taste better?
3. Which one am I less likely to make at home?

Truth be told, I don't eat out very much, and I'd rather not eat something out that I'm going to make at home. On the other hand, I am trying to be healthy.

So. I would much more likely make a salad at home, which gives a point to the lasagna. However, assuming the dressing isn't crazy loaded with fat, the salad is healthier, which is a point for the salad. It would come down to what I felt like that day (lasagna, you could eat half and have the rest for lunch the next day).

People like to use cost per calorie as a way to determine the "value" of food. But fresh fruits and vegetables will almost always lose out on that competition. But that does not mean we shouldn't eat them.

In the end, if the meal out isn't as good as or better than what I can make at home (and these days, it rarely is), then I don't eat out.

In the case of the muffin, I would probably choose the lower fat one, assuming it tastes as good. This is assuming, for example, that I am traveling and have no choice but to eat out. If that were the case for the restaurant and it were lunch time, I might get the higher calorie option and then just skip dinner (cheaper than eating two meals).

chacha1 said...

I'm a little hard to please when it comes to lasagna, so I would choose the Caesar salad almost every time. But that presupposes it's a restaurant where I have some confidence the salads are made fresh to order and not tipped out of a plastic bag and doused with bottled dressing.

My thing is, a food item merely having enough calories to constitute a meal (for me, that's between 400 and 600), is not enough to sway my choice. A package of Pop-Tarts is 400 calories, but it sure isn't a meal. Four hard-boiled eggs is 400 calories, but ... yyyyeah, not a meal.

Diane Carlson said...

I eat what I feel like eating. Sometimes it's a salad, sometimes lasagne.

Anadrol said...

Well if you go for the healthy option you will sacrifice taste for sure.
Butter and suggar...


Daniel said...

These are great comments as always--my readers have really come through by doing exactly what I wanted to see: you are thinking through what you want, based on your personal values.

Don't just silently take what the food industry offers you and assume it's a good deal. The so-called "healthy" option might not be all that healthy. Or, there might be a creative solution available to you using your existing options that's not only a better value... but it's even healthier than the so-called "healthy" option.

Over the past several years the food industry has been offering us "healthy" versions of food that are often of suspect value. My goal with this post was to get readers to think about this.