Processed Foods, Produce, and Food Costs

It’s no secret that Americans, broadly speaking, aren’t known for their healthy eating habits — it’s not just a coincidence, after all, that the Standard American Diet is known by the acronym “SAD.” But there are surprisingly few studies that attempt to look at the big picture of what Americans are eating. As luck would have it, one of those studies was released earlier this month.

Published in the journal BMJ Open, the study looked at data from over 9,000 people who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in 2009 and 2010. As part of the survey, participants provided detailed information about their diets. The researchers then calculated the approximate amount of nutrients present in each food, based on the amounts participants said they ate.


As noted in a HealthDay article on the study, more than half of the average American’s diet — 57.9% of calories — comes from “ultra-processed” foods, a category that includes soft drinks, packaged snacks and baked goods, candy and desserts, instant noodles and soups, and “reconstituted meat products” like chicken nuggets and fish sticks. Not surprisingly, these foods contributed 89.7% of the calories from added sugar that the average person consumes. The rest of the added sugars came from the category of “processed” foods, which — unlike “ultra-processed foods” — refers to otherwise minimally processed foods that have added salt, sugar, or other preservatives or additives. This category includes canned foods, bread, and cheese, among many other items.

Overall, the added-sugar content of “ultra-processed” foods was much higher — at 21.1% of calories — than that of “processed” foods (2.4% of calories) or the combination of “unprocessed,” “minimally processed,” and “processed” foods. “Unprocessed” foods include produce and whole grains, while “minimally processed” foods include ground nuts and precut fruits and vegetables. Among the 20% of participants who ate the most “ultra-processed” foods, 82.1% exceeded the recommended limit of getting 10% of daily calories from added sugars. Among the 20% of participants who ate the least “ultra-processed” foods, only 26.4% exceeded this limit.

So why do so many people eat “ultra-processed” foods, and why don’t people eat more fresh produce and other “unprocessed” or “minimally processed” foods? One reason, of course, is that processed foods are often cheap and convenient, while produce tends to require preparation and isn’t always affordable. One solution to this problem — two solutions, actually — could be to raise the price of unhealthy processed foods by taxing them, and to lower the price of produce and whole grains by subsidizing them. The tax might even cover the cost of the subsidy, so that the government wouldn’t spend or take in any money between the two.

And the effects of even relatively modest taxes and subsidies could be dramatic. According to a study presented at the American Heart Association’s EPI Lifestyle Scientific Sessions earlier this month, lowering the price of fruits and vegetables by 10% could prevent 515,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease within the next 20 years. As a Medical News Today article on the study notes, this represents almost a 2% drop in cardiovascular-disease deaths, and researchers also estimated that the price reduction would lead to a 2.6% drop in heart attacks and a 4% drop in strokes within 20 years. Lowering the price of grains would lead to additional drops in cardiovascular disease and death.

As for taxing unhealthy processed foods, raising the price of sugary beverages by 10% would reduce cardiovascular-disease deaths by another 0.12% within 20 years, as well as lower the rate of diabetes by 0.7%. While these numbers may seem small, the number of lives they represent is substantial.

What’s your take on “ultra-processed” foods in the American diet — are you surprised that they make up such a large share of total food consumed? How much of your diet do you think consists of such foods? Would you be less likely to eat these foods if they were more expensive, possibly due to a tax on certain unhealthy items? Do you think you’d eat more fruits and vegetables if they were less expensive, or are there other barriers to consuming them that are more significant? How would you feel about a tax/subsidy scheme as described above? Leave a comment below!