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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Stretch Your Food Dollar, Not Your Belt
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By Gerald F. Combs, Jr.

Americans at all income levels have responded to the economic downturn of the last year by reducing consumer spending.  And spending on food is no exception, as cost conscious food shoppers are always sensitive to prices.  In fact, the cost of food hit record prices in 2007 and 2008 as a result of the record prices of energy and agricultural commodities-putting further pressure on American consumers when it comes to shopping for food. 

Food accounts for a significant amount of retail spending.  Of every $5 that Americans spend in retail, $1 is for food.  Against flat income growth for most Americans, food prices at supermarkets and restaurants have been increasing at 2.4 to 5.5 percent in recent years.  Consumers are adjusting their food consumption practices accordingly, reversing the trends of recent years toward increasing food expenditures outside of the home.   A recent study by the Hartman Group showed that Americans have been eating less frequently at casual or fine-dining restaurants (down 67 percent), more frequently at fast-food restaurants (up 28 percent), and that they have been switching to cheaper foods at home (up 52 percent).

But eating cheaper may not mean eating better.  Adam Drewnowski and colleagues at the University of Washington have pointed out that stretching the food dollar can drive unwitting consumers in the direction of high-fat, high-calorie foods.  They have noted that low-cost diets selected by many consumers tend to be high in added sugars and fats, and low in fruits and vegetables. 

Actually, many "healthful" diet patterns based on lean meats, whole grains and fresh vegetables and fruits can be relatively expensive.  And in fact, energy-dense grains, fats and sweets are typically the lowest-cost options for consumers.  Foods that are energy-dense, meaning that have relatively large numbers of calories per ounce, tend to be highly palatable.  This has been demonstrated using laboratory animals and human volunteers.  Such studies have shown that energy-dense foods, particularly those containing fat, sugar or both, provide more sensory enjoyment and pleasure than low energy foods. 

Our preferences for sugar and fat are either innate or acquired early in life.  Studies with children have shown that food preferences are driven by familiarity with--and the energy density of--the food.

Drewnowski has suggested that the combined effect of convenience, good taste, large portions and low satiating power of low-cost, energy-dense foods may be among the principal reasons for overeating and gaining weight. That this phenomenon involves low-cost, readily accessible foods, may explain why obesity, which now affects one-third of adults and one-sixth of children, is most prevalent among lower-income Americans, particularly African Americans, Native Americans and women of all groups.

But it need not be that way.  Nutritionists and dietitians know that nutritionally balanced, low-fat, low-energy diets need not be expensive.  For example, the Mediterranean diet pattern, which emphasizes grains, pulses (beans, peas and lentils), nuts, vegetables and both fresh and dried fruits, offers low-energy, nutrient-rich everyday diets based on low-cost foods.  This illustrates the tricks to stretching one's food dollar without sacrificing one's health:  choose satiating foods over large portions; choose several vegetables at meals, particularly canned ones, which tend to be at the lowest cost; choose fruits including those that are canned (without added sugar) or dried; choose whole grain products including pasta; and minimize the use of fats including dressings. 

For a convenient guide and interesting information on healthy, economical eating, consult MyPyramid.gov.


Last Modified: 12/17/2009
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