Why Processed Food Is Cheaper Than Healthier Options

Earlier in the week in our "On the Run" series, we heard a mom explain how mac and cheese was more affordable than fresh fruit. Morning Edition reached out to Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, a nutritionist and economist, to explain why that would be true.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's return to something we've been chewing on from an earlier, story in our On the Run series. In Monday's report, Araceli Flores made this observation.

ARACELI FLORES: I can buy a box of macaroni and cheese for a dollar. A bunch of bananas will cost me over a dollar. Strawberries are four dollars. A bag of apples is going to cost me five dollars. I mean, way more pricier to buy vegetables and fruits than it is to buy boxed food.

BARRY POPKIN: Yes, it's true.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The guy that you heard at the end there is Barry Popkin. He's a nutritionist and economist at of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. We asked him to explain why that's true.

POPKIN: We have a processed package food industry which is enormously efficient. It takes a little bit of wheat. It takes a little bit of artificial cheese. It uses lots of chemical flavors and it makes these magical tasty foods that are very inexpensive.

INSKEEP: Popkin says mac n' cheese also beats out fresh food when you factor in other costs to the consumer, like labor and time.

POPKIN: The time it takes to cook a mac n' cheese is very short and it fills you up. The time it takes to cut up the strawberries, to cut up the fruit, to make it, it adds time. The other side is getting it from the farmer, all the way through to the store, keeping it looking good and not having it spoiled, takes a lot of refrigeration takes a lot of complex steps that are very expensive.

MONTAGNE: He says another factor is a long history of government subsidies for food production, but not so much for fruits and veggies.

POPKIN: We didn't really create the same infrastructure for fruits and vegetables that we created for animal foods, for oils, sugars and other things. The difference is such a huge magnitude of long-term investment that it would take an awful lot to make fruits and vegetables cheap like they should be.

INSKEEP: That's nutritionist and economist Barry Popkin at UNC, Chapel Hill.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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