Why is Healthy so Expensive?

One cracked brown egg in a half-dozen brown cardboard carton.

The question is nothing new. We’ve all heard something like it before, most likely accompanied with a scoff or eye roll. It goes along the lines of, “Why is eating healthy so expensive?”

Ring any bells?

It’s a fair question to ask. As conscious consumers, we want the choice of being able to eat food that is good for us — without it simultaneously taking a bite out of our bank account. But are we sure we’re asking the right question? Perhaps we should be shifting our focus.

Rather than asking why health foods are so pricey, the real question is why are unhealthy foods so cheap? There are a couple of players involved influencing your grocery shopping, so let’s take a look.


A (very brief) Introduction to Economics 101

Don’t worry — I’m not about to take you back to that mandatory economics course you may or may not have dozed off in. But a big factor at play here is known as economies of scale. In other words, the more of a product you produce, the cheaper it becomes.

Industrial agriculture has the ability to produce livestock, poultry, and crops on a massive scale, making it possible to sell the product at a lower cost. Specifically, crops that are being mass produced are things like corn, wheat, and soy — products that are primarily processed into refined flours and sugars. As a result, the cheapest products to buy are those that are almost void of nutrients.


Government Subsidies — Not Paying It Forward

How are agri-businesses even able to produce crops on such a huge scale? The answer: government subsidies.

In Canada alone, billions of dollarsworth of subsidies goes towards industrial agriculture. This allows agri-businesses, like dairy and wheat industries, to sell their product at low price that does not reflect the cost to produce it.

Far fewer government subsidies go to organic or health food farms. Because of this, healthy foods are actually sold at a fair market price!It only seems so expensive because the price of unhealthy foods have been brought down by government subsidies.


The Price to be Organic

Did you know that farmers have to pay to be organic? In order to qualify as an organic food producer, farming practices and products need to be assessed by a certified agent — every year! These audits require inspections, assessments, and travel that can cost farmers thousands of dollarsannually depending on the size of their farm.

Farmers have to raise their prices to cover the cost of this certification, and as a result organic food items cost more than their conventional counterpart.

Aerial view of two tractors in a farmer's field harvesting a yellow field of wheat.
(Photo by Johny Goerend

Take-Out Culture

These days, it’s easy to get away without basic cooking skills. But if the majority of your office lunches are coming out of a take-out box rather than Tupperware, then it’s going to cost you more to eat healthy.

Sure, you can get a whole meal from McDonald’s or another fast food chain for a couple of bucks, but if you’re looking to buy a something healthy on-the-go (like a hearty salad or bowl), then expect your receipt to be in the double digits.

This has to do with everything mentioned above. Fast-food joints are so cheap because their ingredients (meat, wheat, sugar, dairy) are produced on a massive scale and are subsidized.


Inglorious Ingredients

This brings me to my final point — ingredients. If you’re comparing two seemingly similar products and are wondering why one is more expensive than the other, flip it around. Read through the ingredient list carefully. Do the first few ingredients on that package of granola include oats, refined sugar, and flour? Or does it reveal a variety of whole grains, nuts, seeds and honey?

Of course, the latter is going to be more costly. The first granola, with its mass produced and subsidized ingredients, will sell at a lower cost that does not accurately reflect the price of real food.


Food for Thought — A Thought for Food

It’s interesting to note that the price we pay for our food does not reflect the toll it takes on the environment. Industrial agriculture requires heavy machinery, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers — all of which are made with fossil fuels and can exhaust our soils. Diseases, common in over-crowded animal farms, are “managed” with hormones and antibiotics rather than by embracing practices that would limit diseases in the first place. As a result, industrial agriculture is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gases.

Imagine if the cost of a food item was set based on the damage its processing had on the environment. The price of chicken nuggets would sky rocket. Penny-cent candy probably never would have existed. Heirlooms would become commonplace and artisanal would be easier to enjoy.

But that’s not our reality — not yet anyways. So for now, we must double check our prices, re-read ingredients and ask ourselves, “What should this really cost?”


(Header image by Talia Thomson)