What is the cost of a healthy diet?
The Department of Human Nutrition at the University of Otago does a yearly survey of the cost of a selected range of groceries.
The grocery list is based on the New Zealand Food and Nutrition Guidelines. They report on costs for choosing various levels of food variety and convenience.
So far, so good. Might be a useful cost-of-living measure.
What's the problem?
It's not the data. Here is the introduction to their Information Package:
"Most healthy families or individuals will meet their nutritional needs when spending the amount of money specified as the basic costs..."Back up the grocery truck, we forgot the supporting data! Spending the basic amount of money on similar foods as the study will provide most with basic nutritional needs. The money alone is unrelated.
"However, spending less than this amount increases the risk of not getting all the necessary nutrients."Does it? Nutrition depends on the foods chosen, not the amount spent.
"Many people will not lack energy or nutrients when spending less than this amount on food if they make careful management choices."Sounds tricky - how do I know if I'm one of the many?
"However, the chances of consuming an inadequate diet increase as the amount spent to purchase food falls below the basic costs."So what are my chances? Can I see a graph?
Good science, Bad Science!
Here are my guidelines for interpreting scientific results from my study for Dr T Colin Campbell's Certificate in Plant Based Nutrition. Let's add another important test:
Does the data actually support the conclusions?In this case, the conclusion (disguised as an introduction) is unsupported by the data. It is also easily refuted. They have misused their study on grocery costs to make nutrition claims.
Any scientist would know this, including the study's researchers. This was not a peer-reviewed study. And the only implied action from the study is flawed.
What's behind this?
Spend $X and you are probably well-nourished. Spend less and you risk malnutrition.This is classic FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt), a common marketing tactic in our consumer-oriented culture where money is more important than substance.
Very likely, the researchers did not even write the introductory paragraph.
Consider who benefits from this deception:
The study seems more important
Our current government is slashing education funding - a study which pretends to provide nutrition guidance might look more valuable than a simple cost of living study.
Frugality seems risky
We are suffering from a recession, and more than ever, consumers want to save money. As people tighten their belts, the economy slows more.
But perhaps food scientists can boost the economy by scaring people away from frugality.
Animal food = expensive food
I am a vegan. The study's choice of grocery purchases may well represent the food choices of the majority. But the food list notably starts:
1. Meat and poultry
5 of the first 6 items on the list are animal foods. Milk should actually top the list, as it is recommended in by far the largest amount (kgs per week!). Those are also the most expensive foods.
Because it is becoming better known that we do not need animal foods, and that we eat too much of them, these foods are often the targets for cost and health-savvy consumers.
And rightly so. When you remove or reduce these in your shopping list and choose, for example, more legumes, you spend less. Meatless Mondays, resumed to help save the Earth, originated with rationing during times of war.
The Department of Human Nutrition at Otago is the only place in New Zealand approved to train Registered Dieticians. New Zealand's economy is heavily dependent on animal products, and government funded nutrition studies throughout New Zealand still emphasise a need to eat animal foods, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Healthy diet = healthy wallet
The Department of Human Nutrition chooses a diet heavy in lots of expensive animal foods, then claims that reducing the grocery bill might threaten your health.
There is an eerie similarity to nutrition recommendations such as the ADA's "carefully planned vegetarian and vegan diets" are healthy. More fairly, you have to plan any sort of diet carefully for it to be healthy.And along with the 5 expensive animal foods at the top of this healthy list, check out the last 6:
- fats and oils
- Milo ???? (this Nestle ad brought to you by...you, the NZ taxpayer)
Reducing this grocery bill might threaten your health...or might it significantly improve it?
The bottom line
Your total at the grocery checkout is not your health score. Check out a week's worth of food around the world for some perspective.
Voting with your dollar is crucial. When you buy food, know what you're buying and why. Spending more or less at the grocery store might impact your health - but learning about nutrition is a better investment.