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The Big Food rip off

Reading time: 4 minutes

Junk food and ready meals aren’t as cheap as you might think, says Rob Verkerk

The facts are increasingly clear: unhealthy diets and a poor lifestyle are the primary causes of chronic disease and early death in our society. The diseases we get from these inappropriate life choices – especially type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and some of the more common types of cancer – cause unnecessary suffering, often over many years. And these diet- and lifestyle-related diseases are entirely preventable.

Here’s the social dilemma revealed by copious research: better-educated people suffer the least burden from these diseases because they make better dietary choices. What we’re then told is that those who are less well-off simply can’t afford the expensive, healthy food; they effectively have no alternative but to buy more junk food and ready-made meals because it’s all they can afford.

The real facts are different. The cost argument is an illusion, and the education argument is more valid. Poorer people do, it seems, have less available information about healthy choices, and less desire to buy whole foods and cook from scratch. But this duality is maintained, we surmise, by the cleverly maintained drip-feed of information that keeps reinforcing the point that junk food and supermarket ready-made foods are the cheapest foods available.

Well, it’s bunkum. It’s part of a ploy to get large swathes of society hooked on foods that hit the sweet spot in our brains that creates both physiological and psychological addictions.

The likes of NestlŽ, Pepsi, General Mills, Kraft, Mars and Coca-Cola have invested billions over the years in learning how to get people addicted to their products. It’s a special combination of ingredients like salt, sugar, gluten and specific fats that reach those parts of our brains that make us feel both comforted and wanting more.

And if it’s perceived as cheap, who cares if we buy more of it to feel satisfied? After all, it’s cheap. Our addiction doesn’t allow us to think rationally about our eating habits or calculate our total spend on foods like this – let alone consider the long-term indirect costs of being made ill, often over decades.

At the Alliance for Health International, we’ve been looking closely at this issue for some time. In our most recent analysis (March 2017), we compared a home-cooked chicken-and-vegetable meal, made by following our own healthy-eating Food4health guidelines [see WDDTY December 2016, page 26] with ingredients bought from a low-cost supermarket (UK’s Walmart-owned Asda), against a ‘comparable’ ready-made ‘chicken dinner’ meal from the same supermarket and a McDonald’s Big Mac meal. With each meal, we included a ‘sweet’ to follow: frozen berries for the home-cooked meal, low-fat yoghurt for the supermarket meal and a McFlurry for the McDonald’s meal.

We then analyzed the meals in terms of their direct cost per person based on a four-person family, their cost per 1,000 calories and also in terms of the nutrition it delivered. In British pounds, with the home-made, supermarket ready-meal and junk-food meals, the costs per person were Σ2.26, Σ2.05 and Σ5.38, respectively.

The McDonald’s, while being cheap for eating out, was over twice the cost compared with eating at home. When you multiply by four for a family, the price differential gets even bigger – yet we still think of McDonald’s as a
cheap meal.

Where it really gets interesting is when you look at it per 1,000 kcal, which is roughly a third of an average adult’s daily energy intake. Now the costs become Œ£2.00, Œ£4.15 and Œ£2.93 for the home-made, supermarket ready-meal and McDonald’s meals, respectively. The fact that the meal that seemed the cheapest initially has become over twice the price for a given amount of energy compared with food made from scratch reveals a key ploy on the part of supermarkets – and that’s about making you want more.

The supermarket ready-meal and low-fat yoghurt deliver so little in the way of real nutrition, you would in all likelihood be craving an energy-dense, high-sugar snack well before your next proper meal. And it’s this snacking culture that’s driving both Big Food profits and our spiralling rates of chronic disease.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by all this. Home-prepared food made with largely whole food ingredients has been subjected to less technological processing, the cost of which would then be paid for by the end consumer. It’s also got many fewer additives, which also cost money. Add to that the costs of the fast-food outlets and their advertising, none of which apply to real food ingredients, and then you can factor in whether the food is ultimately addictive or not, and all the other things you might be tempted to buy when you’re at the supermarket or the local convenience or corner store. Add all of that up each week and see how much it costs.

If together we could help break down the illusion that junk food and ready-made, TV-style dinners are the cheapest foods on the market, we would go a long way towards ridding our society of the single biggest cause of unnecessary and preventable suffering.

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Article Topics: Big Mac, Cost, food, nutrition
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