[alert-success]Stick with calorie-dense cheap foods like breads and rice[/alert-success]and
[alert-success]You can still eat healthy, you just have to buy nutrient dense foods[/alert-success]So which is it?
What I Set Out to DoFinding out the answer to that question is my primary motivation.In order to find as complete an answer as possible, I compiled a list of foods with their nutrient density and their typical cost, which led to some interesting findings that I’ll now present.
How it was DoneA while back I saw the presentation below done by Mathieu Lalonde, where he looked at the nutrient density of several thousand foods. My intention was to build off of the work he did here: I followed an identical procedure, but I could only include foods that I also had pricing data for. I got the nutrition data from here, and the pricing data from the USDA food plans site here.By the time I had gone through all of the foods in the nutrition spreadsheet, I was left with just over 1000 different foods complete with vitamin/mineral information and typical pricing. I’ll include a link to the spreadsheet at the end of this post for download.The main ‘score’ I calculated was as follows:This presented a bit of a problem when there were negative nutrition densities, because a low price would make the food appear worse than a high price. To deal with this I shifted the nutrient density so that the worst food began at 0.
The LimitationsIf you haven’t watched that presentation video above I encourage you to do so, it’s really interesting, and will explain the limitations of the nutrient density portion of this better than I can.
- The first main issue is that the nutrition data from the USDA isn’t complete, but it’s still the best source available. The main thing that it is missing is information about essential fatty acids, and some vitamins/minerals.
- The topic of enriched foods deserves a separate discussion in the near future, but obviously foods that are enriched will score very high on the nutrition side of this, which may or may not be fully deserved.
- Every region in the United States, let alone different countries may have drastically different prices for any number of foods. Buying in bulk vs. single, brand name vs. no name and during sales could affect results for your situation significantly. Feel free to download a copy at the end and put in custom data to see how foods you often buy stack up.
- While 1000+ entries is a decent sample, it is no means a complete sample and there are many foods I would have liked to have included.
The ResultsThere’s a lot that could be said about the information gathered, but I’ll try to go over the most interesting.Here’s a quick overview of the distribution before we start looking at specifics:There’s an average score of 25.68, and you can see that any score above 40 is pretty highly ranked.
The Kings and Queens of Nutrition and CostIf you had a look at the beef cut nutrition profile tool that I posted a short while agoyou saw that the best part nutrition-wise was liver. It shouldn’t shock you that beef liver was in the top 10:Most of the other top entries didn’t rank very high in terms of nutrient density, but were very cheap. I will come back to this to finish the article and try to answer the original question.
SpicesSpices have an interesting role when it comes to cooking nutritiously and cheap. With some practice, spices can make plain meals taste great, which may allow you to buy cheaper/plainer foods in the first place. So even if they don’t have particularly high scores, still may be worth buying.They were of particular note in Lalonde’s presentation, where spices as a whole were a highly ranked category. I had a very limited sample of spices available, but they had a high cost/100 grams, which led to good, but not the best scores overall. The standout was Parsley, which had the 6th highest score.
Meat and Meat ProductsOverall meat and meat products scored pretty well, which means they are often worth the extra expense over the cheapest of foods. Note that if this included essential fatty acids I would expect them to rank even higher.The best:Not surprisingly, the organ meats score very well as they are both nutritious and fairly inexpensive. Fish, ground meats, and sausages round out most of the other top spots for meat.The worst:It’s interesting that the same types of foods that scored really well before score really poorly in a lower-quality form. This suggests that any savings from cheaper quality meat, particularly deli meats (like sausages) are not worth the nutritional trade-off.
Fruits and VegetablesThis is probably the section that surprised me the most, take a look:In general fruits and vegetables both have poor nutrition densities. Sure we aren’t including fiber as an essential nutrient, but compared to the expectation of “fruits and vegetables are the healthiest foods ever”, it’s kind of a letdown. That being said, vegetables in particular are fairly cheap and you can see by the scores that they are pretty cost-effective.Finally, while I was looking for Lalonde’s data I came across this reddit thread, and there was a comment I would like to relay here:
…For example, fruit and veggies scored very low in his list, but fruit and veggies have other types of benefits that go beyond vitamins and minerals (e.g. flavonoids, antioxidants, etc). Maybe their role is not to be nutrient dense, but to provide other functions for us.I’d just like to re-emphasize that this isn’t the table to end-all nutrition arguments, but to provide a way to look at the cost-effectiveness of foods on an essential nutrient level.