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Is Cheap Food Really Cheap? The Hidden Costs of Industrial Food


Do you go to the grocery store and purchase whatever is on the shelf, or do you think about what’s in the food you eat and how it is produced?

Where your food comes from is just as important as making something at home from scratch. The ingredients and how they are produced say a lot about just how healthy that food really is.

When you go to the grocery store or out to eat at a restaurant, consider the following about the majority of food sold and served:

  • Most grocery store and restaurant meat comes from factory farm environments where the animals are confined and live in less than optimal. Shoved together in small and sometimes filthy, unnatural spaces,  surrounded by waste lagoons, are administered hormones, steroids, and antibiotics. Animals are fed  cheap and unnatural feed including genetically-modified corn, grain, and soy, and renderings of bio-waste products. The waste generated by factory farm facilities contaminates our air, soil, and ground water, which places nearby residents at risk for exposure to pathogenic bacteria like E.coli and others.
  • Factory farms can be small or large in scale, but are highly specialized, and function like a factory (hence the term “factory farm”). These facilities use fossil fuel, pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals, and synthetic fertilizers derived from oil. Small-scale, organic farming operations have been shown to use 60 percent less fossil fuel per unit of food than conventional industrial farms (Norberg-Hodge, Helena , Todd Merrifield, and Steven Gorelick. Bringing The Food Economy Home: Local Alternatives to Global Agribusiness, 2002.)
  • Conventional produce is grown with pesticides and herbicides, and increasingly more from genetically-modified and engineered seeds, and with modern farming methods which are as harmful to the landscape. This type of farming, called mono-cropping, is damaging and strips the soil of its nutrients – substances which are vital to the nutritional density and flavor of the foods you eat. The over-use of chemicals like insecticides and pesticides has caused rapidly-developing resistance in pests which has rendered these chemicals increasingly ineffective. The production of herbicide tolerant (HT) biotech crops, particularly Monsanto’s RR crops, has resulted in the development of superweed strains that are nearly impervious to even conventional methods. Biotech info discusses how cross-pollination techniques, a method employed by GM companies like Monsanto, lead to further and further resistance in these superweed strains.
  • Conventional produce contains higher amounts of water and less nutrition. From Sustainable Table: “A comparison of the nutritional content between organic and factory farmed, conventional vegetables showed that organic produce has higher nutritional value. Organic lettus had 29 percent more magnesium, organic spinach had 52 percent more Vitamin C, organic carrots had 69 percent more magnesium, and organic cabbage had 43 percent more Vitamin C, 41 percent more iron and 40 percent more magnesium.”
  • Processed foods contain chemically-laden “food-like substances” which contain carcinogenic ingredients, hydrogenated and highly processed oils, MSG and other excitotoxins, are synthetically fortified and contain little to no nutritional value. The result is less nutrition and more toxins.
  • Vegetarian and vegan diets don’t necessarily support sustainable agriculture. Many vegetarian and vegan products on the shelves including vegetables, fruits, grains including corn, soy, and legumes come from conventional sources and their growth, production, and sale damages the environment. The majority of soy and much of the grain produced in the world comes from genetically-modified sources.
  • These crops are responsible for damaging farmlands and are destructive to topsoil and biodiversity because of the methods employed in their farming. These farming efforts are known as monocropping – planting the same strains year-after-year, which destroys beneficial organisms and bacteria essential to health. They also use toxic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Monsanto has over 250 million GM acres worldwide. Sustainable farming doesn’t need harmful chemicals to control pests and weeds, but instead uses nature to manage its land and crops.
  • According to Sustainable Table, “Factory farms also threaten our health by incubating infectious diseases that can spread to the human population. Sometimes diseases are transferred directly from animals to humans. In cases of direct transmission, a worker who comes in contact with a diseased animal or its manure can contract the disease and pass it on to their family and community.”
  • Industrial food has the appearance of a “cheaper” price tag on the shelf, but the hidden costs are almost endless. Conventional food is subsidized by the government to “keep prices down”.  Who pays for those subsidies? Every tax payer in the U.S. You’ll spend more time in the doctor’s office and hospital, paying for drugs, surgery, and other procedures to “cure” your ailments. The sick joke is that these will never cure your health problems, only keep you coming back time and time again for more appointments and medications.

Supporting industrial farming keeps corporations going.  The result is damage to health and environment, and your dollars aren’t supporting smaller, family-owned farms whose goal is to bring you healthy food that preserves our health and the environment.

Benefits of small-scale, sustainable farming and food

When you buy sustainable food from small-scale producers, you are supporting local communities and healthy farming practices. The amount of fossil fuels used to transport these products is reduced, and the overall CO2 emissions into the atmosphere are lowered as well.

Although conventional medical recommendations tell us to stay away from saturated fats and red meat, grass-fed beef, eggs, and dairy do not clog our arteries. Unlike their factory counterparts, pastured animal foods contain CLA (conjugated linoleic acid, an important antioxidant), Omega 3s, minerals, Vitamins A, D, E, and K2. Read an interview with Dr. James Carlson, M.D., a board-certified family physician, osteopath, and clinical biochemist from the Weston A. Price Foundation site.

The process of grazing a herd of cattle on open land and moving them around from pasture to pasture on a day-to-day basis allows regeneration of the land as well as replenishment of nutrients in the soil and grasses. This type of farming actually encourages the health of top soil – one of the most critical areas of the environment which has a profound effect on health. When farmers work with the land to encourage natural biodiversity and development of microrganisms, the result is a win-win situation for all involved, the land, humans, and animals. Organic Grass Fed Beef Info thoroughly explains the vast differences between how  grass-fed animals and grain-fed animals are raised.

Scientific research shows that sustainable, pasture-raised, and organic foods provide significant health benefits for consumers. In addition to being raised without synthetic hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, sustainable meat is more nutritious than meat produced by industrial agriculture for the reasons discussed above.

A recent report by the French Agency for Food Safety (AFSSA) revealed that organic foods are higher in both mineral and antioxidant content than their conventional counterparts. Another study from The Journal of Applied Nutrition found that the overall mineral content of organic foods sampled was higher than conventional – apples, potatoes, pears, wheat, and sweet corn. Mercury levels in the organic foods were found to be 27 percent lower than conventional.

From a joint study conducted by CDC scientists, the University of Washington, and Emory University, results reveal that pesticide levels in test subjects dropped to undetectable levels upon switching to an organic diet. When the subjects switched back to a non-organic diet, pesticide residues almost immediately became detectable. (Schafer S., Kristin, et al. “Chemical Trespass: Pesticides in Our Bodies and Corporate Accountability.” Pesticide Action Network of North America, May 2004)

Many health problems have been attributed to the consumption of these so-called foods, and yet the distinction is seldom made. Toxins and chemicals in our food supply are responsible for the appearance of earlier degenerative diseases than in the historical past.  Body Ecology provides a description of toxins in the products we eat and drink and those both in and outside of our bodies.

What are the hidden costs of cheap food?

Here is a comparative analysis of several processed foods versus a real, whole food free from chemicals and other toxins typically found in industrial food from Windy Ridge Poultry, in Alfred, NY:

Switching to natural, organic, and grass-fed foods seems expensive on the surface, but when you consider health problems that can occur as a result of consuming processed foods, not to mention costs incurred on health care, environmental, and tax systems we pay for directly out of our own pockets, doesn’t it seem worth it to spend more now and save later?

Industrial food may have a cheaper price tag at the store, but the long-term repercussions of eating this way for an extended period of time will amount to a higher price tag in the future in more ways than one: you’ll pay with your pocketbook and your quality of life.

To learn more about factory farms, visit The Food & Water Watch web site. And here’s the factory farm list for every facility in the country by state.

Join up with the Millions Against Monsanto Campaign to help preserve the environment and health.

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45 replies on “Is Cheap Food Really Cheap? The Hidden Costs of Industrial Food”

These are great points, and ones that I always mention when people complain about the cost of food. Unfortunately, it requires quite a chunk of privilege to be able to think this broadly; many people are so poor that they can’t think beyond the availability and cost of the next meal, and a grass-fed steak can never compete with a 75-cent pack of ramen. I think it’s important to carefully recognize our affluent position (and I say that even as a person who lives below the poverty line) when we discuss these things, but for those of us who CAN afford to think beyond the next meal, these points are incredibly important!

I really like the points you raised. Eating cheap factory food is always more expensive in the end,in terms of illness, premature aging, lack of energy,a weakened immune system,and many other problems. There is no better way to spend your money than on quality food.

I have been called “arrogant” by an Amazon reviewer because I advocated the use of organic or the equivalent only in my cookbook.
Thank you for reminding me that is more important to tell the truth than to try to please everybody.

Hi Raine,
I like how you summarized the key issues involved with cheap food and suggestions for healthier and more sustainable options. Though our food choices matter it’s not enough to “vote with your fork” (Chandelle raised a good point about affordability). I think really changing this horrible system will requires education and political action (which doesn’t have to depend on affluence)and supporting organizations like Food and Water Watch and Millions Against Monsanto. I appreciate you leaving the links at the end for further action.

I am certainly moved by the affordability issue, I don’t want anyone to think I am trying to be insensitive to that whole thing. Our family has been living on not much for the last year due to job loss and beginning a new business, and it’s been pretty rough – however, I am eternally grateful to have still been able to afford good food for my family. We had to stop making our house payment for 2 months in the beginning of the year…and frankly, I’d rather be without our house than good food. We have relatives who would take us in if that were to happen. I know not everyone has these options.

I really do think there are ways to eat affordably that many people simply don’t try or don’t consider because they feel like if they can’t do it all, they can’t do anything. This is the kind of viewpoint I want to try to alter, even if slowly, because that’s where it starts. Awareness and taking small steps can bring a person or family closer and closer to sustainable living a little bit at a time.

Also, I’d like to mention how struck I am continually by conversations I have with people and things I read – from ranchers and farmers to families and individuals who testify again and again that all during the times they were growing up, they were dirt poor and couldn’t afford to eat processed foods or go out to eat, and all they ate were just plain, whole foods. I don’t think eating healthy is entirely isolated to the wealthy, and to some extent, I think that’s just something people repeat because they hear others say it. So with all due respect, I guess I’m a little tired of hearing this because I know it can be done, I’ve heard countless people confirm it, and I’ve lived it over the last year and more of my life. Yes, it’s been extremely difficult to not have money for anything else – and I mean literally, ANYTHING. But we have also made this our priority. We pay our bills when we can and we buy healthy food. That’s it. If we have a big expense, we either just don’t do it or sometimes we receive help from our family – which I am eternally grateful for. Fortunately, nothing major has come up since our loss of income last May (2009).

Here is a great example of what I’m talking about – this post Ann Marie wrote (Cheeseslave) earlier this year about a woman she sat next to on the plane who recounted her youth and diet and what her mother fed to her and her siblings – a completely traditional diet with real food. And they were poor:

Here’s a quick list of the foods they ate from her site in case you don’t go view the link:

Chicken and fish broth (“caldo” — they make the broth with the heads and feets of the chickens or the whole fish including the heads), eggs, meat, including lots of organ meats (including liver, tripe, kidneys, heart, bone marrow, and tongue), raw milk (“still warm from the cow”), cod liver oil (“aceite de hígado de bacalao”), and lots of rice and beans. I asked what fat they cooked with and she said lard.

So, I’m not saying there aren’t any roadblocks, because there are. It’s difficult, at best, to rearrange your way of eating and start to make things from scratch at home from real ingredients, especially when you haven’t been doing so at all…and yes, it can be tricky to rearrange your budget and way of thinking about how to afford healthy food. But it’s not impossible, clearly, or the people who talk about doing it wouldn’t be able to do so. But it can be done, and not all at once. When we originally made our food conversion some three years ago, it was easier for us because we had a steady income and only one child in our house. And I was motivated because I was extremely ill and had to make changes, or things were going to go from bad to worse. And even then, there were many things we could not afford. We just had to do without. We didn’t do everything that is suggested for complete organic and sustainable, we just did what we could. And I agree that this is all anyone can do. But if we just sit by and don’t do anything, that’s the mistake. Because we can all make changes and work toward converting our diets from processed, industrial foods to real food if we want to. I believe that a big part of doing something is wanting to do it and actually making the effort. If a person continues to say, “I can’t, I can’t”, then that’s the truth and nothing else will probably happen. It is my hope to motivate people to make positive changes by reading posts like this, and I hope everyone encourages their friends and family to do so as well. We’re in this together, and if we don’t stand up and make our voices heard with our dollars and our actions, things will continue on the way they are – where no one but the wealthy can afford to buy healthy food.

Stanley – you are most welcome. I am all about telling it like it is, instead of writing something just so people won’t be offended and then believe something that simply isn’t true. Some people get annoyed at that, but ethics in this industry are of extreme importance to me and it should be for everyone. I’m not going to recommend letting up on principles just because it’s difficult. Anything in life that is worth doing takes perseverance, effort, education, and baby steps, and this is certainly no different. So although buying good food is more expensive, I just do the best I can, but I’ll always encourage people to go as far as they can and most importantly, educate. Sometimes when you learn something about the food industry that you didn’t know already, it motivates you to figure out a way to make it work.

A good example of this is that ever since my family has been under-employed last May, we have somehow managed a way to still afford our side of grass-fed beef and raw milk from the farm where we get those two food items. It’s been a hell of an expense ($1850 twice a year), but something always pulls through for us. We don’t even say we’re not going to buy it, even if up until the last minute we don’t have the money. We just go on as if we’re going to buy it and then somehow we’ll make a sale or my husband will get some new work and the money comes through. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. 🙂

Rainie, again, another great article that I will share on my thoughts on friday link love! Karen of a Cook’s Library recently did an article on the real cost of real food and I also have an article by Mary of the frugalbuzz all about healthy eating on a budget. Healthy whole foods can actually be cheaper IF you are willing to put in the work. I understand that time IS money for some folks, but to me, Health is WEALTH and the only way to GET it is to support it using good food! 🙂 Alex@amoderatelife

I’ve stumbled upon living Primal, which was not a far leap from you, other than a few details and motivations, lol.
So far I’ve lost 12lbs in 20 days.
But one thing I do now is Interval Fasting… which means those are days I’m not eating (I let my body tell me when) I’m also SAVING MONEY. Remember the days of cheap foods? And constantly wanting to eat eat eat up lots of cheap cheap cheap food day in and day night and needing snacks to fill up?

Raine- Thank you so much for writing yet another great post, and especially for your thoughtful and heartfelt comments. I know that one of the issues I stuggle with most regarding the real foods lifestyle is finding a way to bridge the gap to people who, like my mother, eat the cheapest possible foods – magarine because it’s cheaper than butter, frozen pizzas because they go on sale for $1, produce from other countries out of season because it’s on sale for 30 cents/lb – and find people who eat the way I do to be snobs or elitists. Whenever I hear about people who are economically hard up living off of $1 menus, I get really depressed, because I know that when times were toughest for me, I lived off of 20 pound bags of beans and rice, and picked greens from a field, and I got by on next to nothing food-wise (literally about $3/wk, without resorting to a single McMeal. I still don’t have much of a food budget, or at least, that’s an area where I continually tighten the straps, but I eat very well – wild meats and vegetables. It takes thought and planning and effort and determination, but eating is elemental to the existence of my family, and I want them to start out with the very best odds.

Thank you so much for this information! I’m a student at The Culinary Institute of America and you’ll be happy to know that more and more students here, and probably in other culinary schools as well, are passionate about changing America’s eating habits and supporting sustainable agriculture.

NourishedMom, Butterpoweredbike, and Cameron – thanks to all of you for your comments and in particular testamonials to how real food is working for you and how you fit it into your budget. I hear stories like this every single day of my life, and I’m always inspired and it continues to motivate me to keep up this critical work.

I am particularly motivated to help those who are eating a diet heavy-laden in industrial foods, because I can see it for what it is – a conditioned response to marketing tactics which have become more and more twisted over the years – since the Industrial Revolution – convincing people that shortcuts and convenience in foods are just fine and even preferable to a nourishing meal. I think this movement that’s happening right now is really showing people the error of our ways over the last century and more, and how we can affect positive change, if we only make the effort.

Poor people who ate cheaply in the past often did so because they had land on which to grow it. Even a sharecropper could use some of the land to feed his own family. Work for $10/hr. — or even $25/hr. and live in a rented apartment with no outdoors and you are stuck.

Real food is TOTALLY affordable. I’ve developed a system over the past 6 weeks that, with some limitations (on choice, not quality), allows me to spend around $300 for a month for a family of 4 — WITHOUT bulk buying, couponing, etc. I’d lower it more if I did those things and I’d have more variety too. But, it absolutely can be done.

I love my grass-fed beef and my raw milk…can’t live without them right now!! We are going through a TON of it (yes, even on this low food budget). I just crave it. Among other things! Cheese, cream, ice cream (see a pattern?), and so on. It’s worse because I’m 6 months pregnant of course. Oh well. 🙂

Kate – I have seen your post about saving money and it is fabulous! I shared it on one of my client’s FB walls that I manage because she targets children and families. I’m with you, I love grass-fed beef and raw milk, and any raw dairy really. Right now we are on a super tight budget and we are running out of meat in our freezer from the side of beef we got a few months ago. I don’t know when we’ll be able to buy another one, so we’ll have to buy the grass-fed meat from the health food store by the package, when we can afford it. I have not been able to get our food budget down as low as yours, but I have been trying to spend only about $250 every two weeks at the store. It’s been fairly easy to do that with all the meat in our freezer, but now that we are running out and don’t have the $$ to buy another side up front, we’ll have to be really creative. I think I’ll be checking out your post again soon for some ideas. 🙂 In fact, here is one of your posts – I think this is a great resource!

First, being a vegan is generally associated with caring for the ecological impact of what we consume, then, animal products have consumed huge amounts of water and food.

Good to say “not consuming animal products is not enough”. You could still precise that even if it comes from sustainable farming, eating a lot of meat/eggs/cheese is a considerable waste.

Most doctors admit that it’s much healthier to eat meat twice a week than everyday.

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This is a very interesting article. I like the points you raised about the hidden costs of cheap foods versus the true value of ‘real’ foods. This is why I like to go to our province for a short vacation because I have several organic and grass-fed foods to choose from there compared in the city where healthy options are little to none.

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