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Costs of Foods

January 28th, 2017
money, food  [html]
It's hard to get a sense of how expensive different foods are. For example, compare bread and pasta: which is cheaper? What's the right way to compare them? At a general american meal where you have a starch, a protein, and a vegetable, the role of the starch is mostly to provide calories, so comparing pasta and bread on a cost-per-calorie basis seems right. Similarly the role of the protein is to provide, well, protein [1], so cost-per-gram-of-protein makes sense there. On this basis, what do different foods look like?

I went around our local supermarket [2] writing down the cost and calories/protein for a range of foods. In general I picked the store brand of things, whatever size was cheapest by unit price, and mostly picked things that were on the cheap end (no fancy meats or cheeses). My raw data is here.

The first thing I found was that sales matter a lot! For example, here are the ten cheapest protein sources (¢/gram protein) with sale and regular prices:

by sale price by regular price
1. bone-in shank ham (1.1¢) dry lentils(1.5¢)
2. eggs (1.2¢) dry black beans (1.7¢)
3. dry lentils (1.3¢) eggs (1.9¢)
4. bone-in chicken breast (1.4¢) bone-in chicken thighs (2.0¢)
5. bone-in chicken thighs (1.5¢) chicken drumsticks (2.0¢)
6. chicken drumsticks (1.5¢) peanut butter (2.1¢)
7. dry black beans (1.7¢) roasted unsalted peanuts (2.2¢)
8. bone-in country style pork (1.7¢) whole milk (2.4¢)
9. roasted unsalted peanuts (1.8¢) canned mackerel (2.7¢)
10. peanut butter (2.1¢) bacon (2.8¢)

A strategy of considering what's cheap today, and stocking up (freezing if needed) does pretty well.

The second thing that surprised me was that cheap animal proteins are as cheap or cheaper than the cheapest plant-based proteins. Like, I knew eggs were cheap, but it looks like big cuts of meat (with bones) can be really very cheap, especially when discounted.

(Since what specific things are on sale varies a lot over time, from here on I'm just going to list regular prices.)

At the other end of the scale, here are the most expensive things you might plausibly be buying for their protein content:

45. hummus (15.4¢)
44. cream cheese (15.4¢)
43. soymilk (12.6¢)
42. beef bologna (11.7¢)
41. quinoa (11.7¢)
40. ice cream (10.2¢)
39. powerbar protein (10.0¢)
38. sliced ham (10.0¢)
37. goveggie 'cheddar' shreds (9.4¢)
36. cashews (9.2¢)

Here are the numbers for starches, in $ per 1000 calories:

1. flour ($0.36)
2. rice ($0.40)
3. pasta ($0.63)
4. white bread ($0.99)
5. oatmeal ($1.20)
6. whole grain pasta ($1.25)
7. fresh bread ($1.37)
8. corn tortillas ($1.52)
9. flour tortillas ($1.55)
10. potatoes ($1.78)
11. bran flakes ($2.43)
12. canned bread ($3.13)
13. Cheerios ($3.29)
14. quinoa ($3.51)
15. rice cakes ($3.57)

One thing that distorts this some is that some of these things keep very well, and so I usually buy them at a cheaper less convenient supermarket once a quarter or so. So for Cheerios, say, that moves it from $3.29 to $1.45, and for bran flakes we go from $2.43 to $1.31.

Another thing that distorts this is that some things I've listed on the protein list are much higher calorie than others. Peanut butter, to pick the most extreme example, would rank between pasta and bread, at $0.79.

(Plus there are things we care about nutritinally aside from protein and calories.)

Still, I think this is a useful starting point for grounding a sense of what things are cheaper and what are more expensive.


[1] Though, really, lysine, since starches often have a reasonable amount of the other amino acids.

[2] Star Market in Porter Square. The Market Basket near Union is much cheaper, and I go there occsasionally for large shops, but ideally the relative prices from Star are about right.

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