Why is Healthy Eating so Expensive?

It’s January. Our social media feeds have been inundated with gym selfies, healthy breakfast recipes and the inevitable stream of “what I eat in a day” videos. Clicking into any one of these posts will inevitably lead you into a rabbit-hole. A very contemporary, LA-centred rabbit-hole, filled with attractive white influencers, nude-toned yoga pants, and aseptic kitchens. Microwaves have been substituted for state-of-the-art juice machines. The meals are showcased cosmetically, in beautiful ceramic bowls, or sparkling smoothie glasses. You feel healthier simply by looking at it.  

There is, of course, one problem. When you consider incorporating this “healthiness” into your own life, the cost of the ingredients starts to add up tremendously. Avocados, having recently come under intense criticism for both their expensiveness and their toll on the environment, remain a staple ingredient of the rich and healthy. Green juices, another ubiquitous health-food staple, are not only time consuming to prepare, but the costs of the blending machines themselves are often steep. Then you factor in the extra food items often added into them: almond butter, chia seeds, whey, kale. For the average student, these are neither accessible, nor affordable.

Delving into why these foods, and indeed this lifestyle, is so costly, becomes confusing. Certifiably healthy and nutritionally dense ingredients – like chickpeas, root vegetables and lentils – are not only very inexpensive, but also associated with many cultural dishes from all over the world, such as lentil dahl from India, or Moroccan chickpea salad. Even traditional Irish dishes, like beef stew or baked potatoes, pack in a lot of health benefits. Eating good, nutrient-rich meals has never traditionally broken the bank. So why does it appear to do so now?

The truth is, is that food – what we eat, how we eat it – has always been inextricably tied with social class. All across sixteenth-century Europe, polemics were being written against the coarse nature of the diet of the peasantry, which was characterised by such undesirable foods such as beans, garlic, and onion. For a member of the nobility to consume such ingredients would be to risk corrupting their own nature. Now increasingly demonised for its ill-effects, sugar was once the food of the colonial era’s elite. Equally ironically, white bread was also once considered superior to brown breads made from grain such as barley or rye, whereas nowadays – if carbs make a feature at all – wholewheat bread is seen as being higher class.

An argument could be made for the fact that now the food being promoted as “good” is scientifically backed. We now know that avocados pack in a lot of vitamin E and healthy fats. Rye bread contains far more fibre than white. Leafy greens such as spinach and kale are rich in vitamin A. And while this is true to some extent, one only needs to look to the now-debunked war on fat that was conducted throughout the 80s and 90s – it too backed by an exhaustive amount of scientific studies – to realise that even science, when it comes to food, can be influenced by trends. For example, though juicing has become immensely popular, there is little evidence to suggest that juiced fruits and vegetables are any healthier than those eaten whole and, if anything, it can remove important fibre from the ingredients.

In another ten or twenty years it probably won’t be surprising to see other foods that we now perceive as healthy today come under a negative light. The expensive juicers will give way to newer technology. The green smoothie will be replaced. Eventually, even the avocado will abdicate its breakfast crown. Who knows? Perhaps the humble potato (rich in multiple anti-oxidants, fibre and potassium) will reign supreme.

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