We all want to eat healthy foods — plant-based, organic, non-GMO, and whole, whenever possible.
For me and many others, that translates as “when we can afford to do so.” After all, a healthy diet can cost three times more than an unhealthy one, and my family (and I bet yours) has got the grocery bills to prove it.
But are we supposed to just settle? That’s a hard choice to make, especially when it’s not just your health, but your kids’ health that’s at stake.
Today, I hope to make that choice just a little bit easier for you. Not by answering the “Is it worth it to buy healthy foods?” question — that’s up to you — but instead providing some objective guidance as to which healthy foods are the most worth your hard-earned money.
A Start: Dr. Fuhrman’s ANDI Index
If you’ve ever shopped at Whole Foods, particularly at the salad bar, you’ve probably seen signs advertising the ANDI scores of certain foods.
It’s a little weird to think about boiling the nutritional value of a food down to a single number, but I like it. Nobody’s arguing that you should eat only a few high-scoring foods and ignore all others, but within the context of a healthy and varied diet, I like being able to “power rank” my foods and make choices accordingly.
ANDI stands for Aggregate Nutrient Density Index, and basically, it reports “nutrients divided by calories,” Fuhrman’s formula for healthy eating. This means the index rewards foods that are nutrient-dense (those high in micronutrients per calorie), and penalizes that are high in calories without packing much in the way of nutrition. Then the scores are scaled so that the highest score 1000 and the lowest score 1. (More details about the methods at the bottom of this page.)
The results are interesting, but not all that surprising: leafy greens top the chart because they pack lots of nutrition in very few calories, followed by other vegetables, then fruits (as the calories start to increase), then nuts and seeds, then beans, then animal products, then junk food.
To get anything from the charts that follow in this post, check out the sampling of ANDI scores for common foods here.
But which healthy foods are the most affordable?
This is the question I found myself asking the other day as I reached for a bunch of kale from the Whole Foods produce section.
Actually, it was a more specific one: Are all these greens worth the cost?
I mean, I know kale is healthy — ANDI says so, giving it the highest score of 1000. But are there perhaps cheaper vegetables that, while not quite as nutrient-dense as kale, might be a much better value for the price?
And thus, this post (and a day of gathering data and fiddling with numbers) was born.
Two Ways to Eat
This turned out to be squirmier than I had anticipated, and the issue comes down to caloric density.
Some people believe that we eat roughly the same weight of food each day — enough to fill up our stomach several times throughout the day (about four to five pounds of food per day, according to Chef AJ in our recent podcast interview). If you’re eating nothing but vegetables, you might consume only 1200 calories per day this way. But add in fruits, nuts, oils, and other more calorically dense foods, and you get 2000 or 3000 calories for the same weight of food.
To people like this who want to save money, the question is “How many pounds of food can I buy for a given amount of money?”
Others believe they need a certain number of calories per day, and they’ll be hungry, have no energy, or become unhealthy if they don’t reach that number. To them, the budget-conscious question is “How many calories worth of food can I buy for a given amount of money?”
Let’s assume that both types of people want to eat as healthily as possible within their framework — they’re not out to buy junk food because it tastes good.
So how should they shop?
Table 1: The lowest ‘cost per unit of nutrient density’ foods
My first step was simply dividing each food’s price-per pound by its ANDI score, to get a “price per ANDI point” for each food. This would be a decent metric for the person who doesn’t aim to hit a certain number of calories, only to fill his or her stomach with healthy food.
The numbers this produced were tiny, so I multiplied by 100 to make them easier to grasp, similar to how ANDI normalizes scores so that they fall between 1 and 1000.
You can think of my calculation, then, as a cost per ANDI-pound, where ANDI-pound is my shorthand for “pound of 100-ANDI-score food.”
For example: Oranges score 98 on the ANDI scale. A pound of oranges, then is roughly equal to an ANDI-pound of oranges. But a pound of kale, which scores 1000 on the ANDI scale, is equal to 10 ANDI-pounds. Assuming both pounds of food fill your stomach the same amount, the kale does so with 10 times as much micronutrient content per calorie. (And remember, here we don’t care about how many calories we consume when we eat a pound of food, other than through its impact on the ANDI score.)
The table below ranks the foods according to their cost per 100-ANDI-point pound — again, a simple measure of cost per unit of nutrient density. You can see that many of the high ANDI-score foods stay near the top, making them a great value, too. But some lower-ANDI foods, like carrots, jump up the chart because of their relatively low cost per pound, compared to greens.
The formula for the rightmost data column in this one is “100 x cost per pound / ANDI”. Methods are explained in more detail at the very end of this post.
|Food||ANDI score||Cost per pound||Cost per ANDI-pound||Notes|
|Bok Choy||865||$1.19||$0.14||Organic price for bok choy|
|Lentils (dried)||72||$0.60||$0.83||Price is per cooked pound, starting from dried, assuming cooking multiplies weight by 2.5|
|Kidney Beans (dried)||64||$0.68||$1.06||Price is per cooked pound, starting from dried, assuming cooking multiplies weight by 2.5|
|Kidney Beans (canned)||64||$0.74||$1.16|
|Brown Rice||28||$0.48||$1.72||Price is per cooked pound, starting from dried, assuming cooking multiplies weight by 3.5|
|Oatmeal||36||$1.01||$2.81||Price is per cooked pound, starting from dried, assuming cooking multiplies weight by 1.75 for rolled oats|
|Pomegranates||119||$4.00||$3.36||Price is for entire fruit|
|Low Fat Plain Yogurt||28||$1.00||$3.55|
|Whole Wheat Bread||30||$1.33||$4.42|
|Vanilla Ice Cream||9||$1.00||$11.07|
|Ground Beef, 85% lean||21||$5.19||$24.71|
Table 2: The lowest “cost per unit of nutrition” foods
But what if you don’t buy the idea that all you need is a certain weight of food each day, and instead you aim to get as many (healthy) calories as you can for your money?
This is much different from the first calculation. Now, instead of “dollars per pound” being the numerator, it’s “dollars per calorie.” When we put “per calorie” in the numerator, we’re canceling the “per calorie” in the ANDI score, which is in the denominator, thus losing any sense of nutrient density. Instead, we’re now measuring dollars per unit of micronutrient content.
The numbers in this calculation also ended up being tiny, so I multiplied by 10,000.
An example makes the difference between the two tables clear: in Table 1, mustard greens outranked kale because the mustard greens are cheaper per pound (78 cents instead of 95 cents, while both greens have the same ANDI score of 1000). But in Table 2, kale comes out ahead.
Why the difference? Because kale packs twice as many calories per pound as mustard greens do, at least according to the source I used for caloric density.
The formula for here is “10,000 x cost per pound x calories per pound / ANDI”. Again, you can see more about my methods at the end of this post.
|Food||ANDI score||Cost per pound||Calories per pound||Cost per ANDI-pound, calories rewarded||Notes|
|Lentils||72||$0.60||512||$0.16||Price is per cooked pound, starting from dried, assuming cooking multiplies weight by 2.5|
|Kidney Beans||64||$0.68||384||$0.28||Price is per cooked pound, starting from dried, assuming cooking multiplies weight by 2.5|
|Bok Choy||865||$1.19||48||$0.29||Organic price for bok choy|
|Kidney Beans (cooked||64||$0.74||384||$0.30|
|Brown Rice||28||$0.48||496||$0.35||Price is per cooked pound, starting from dried, assuming cooking multiplies weight by 3.5|
|Whole Wheat Bread||30||$1.33||1104||$0.40|
|Pomegranates||119||$4.00||368||$0.91||Price is for entire fruit|
|Vanilla Ice Cream||9||$1.00||928||$1.19|
|Low Fat Plain Yogurt||28||$1.00||288||$1.23|
|Oatmeal||36||$1.01||176||$1.60||Price is per cooked pound, starting from dried, assuming cooking multiplies weight by 1.75 for rolled oats|
|Ground Beef, 85% lean||21||$5.19||960||$2.57|
Methods, Shortcomings, and Next Steps
This already-nerdy post is about to get nerdier. Here’s more detail about what I did, including some things that could clearly be improved:
- I did this only for the foods on this sampling of the ANDI chart. Fuhrman sells a more comprehensive list on his site, but I figured it might be a problem to publish those numbers. Plus it’d be extremely time consuming. But if a bunch of us worked together …
- For consistency, I used prices of non-organic food, with one exception (bok choy) where I couldn’t find a non-organic price.
- I used the USDA’s National Retail Report for Fruits and Vegetables for average prices of many foods. For foods that I couldn’t find in this report (even non-fruits-and-vegetables), I used the prices at a Safeway in Maryland. For those I couldn’t find there, I did Google searches. Certainly this introduces some biases which could be removed with more thorough gathering.
- I used 1-pound packages wherever possible, to avoid different prices due to buying in bulk. But many times this wasn’t possible.
- If I saw multiple prices, I went with the lowest.
- Some foods that are sold by weight come with inedible waste, like banana peels and the outside of pomegranates. I didn’t do anything to adjust for this.
- I used the nutrition calculator at nutritiondata.self.com to get calories-per-pound data.
So there you have it. I had a lot of fun with this project, but to do it thoroughly would clearly take many times more work. If that’s something you’d like to help me with, get in touch and we’ll see what we can do!