One aspect that your average shopper doesn’t tend to consider is the the nutrient density of their items. For your $1.00, how many nutrients are you actually buying? How many calories are you buying? It’s hard to wrap your head around it, but those are really two different questions. Neither are particularly easy to answer because we cooks modify our food regularly (cooked cabbage vs. raw cabbage and chicken with skin vs. chicken without skin, for example). So far, in my perusal of information, the simplest but also most reasonable approach was a bunch of academics gathering together to build a database using fancy mathmatical equations to consider the amounts of protein, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and then balancing that with the amounts of saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium. They take that score, and compare the value to the price and also to the calories. (There are definite weaknesses to this approach, though. Calcium is not equivalent to saturated fat.)

You end up with this nice chart, where fruit and vegetables have both the highest cost per calorie and the highest nutrient value per calorie. Legumes and eggs cost less per calorie, but also have slighly lower scores. So, that’s all very nice and well, but we can’t just focus on total score or else we’d be eating nothing but kale and blueberries*. We need to eat a variety of foods from different food groups. The most user-friendly information is which items in a foods groups are the best value: the highest levels of beneficial nutrients with the lowest level of harmful nutrients for the least cost. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a great deal of work in presenting this information to consumers. You know, those of us who buy and eat food?

However, for the data junkie, these Nuval Scores are an interesting place to start. Drewnoski, a researcher in Washington State, has also done some research on the area. Hannaford, a grocery chain primarily in New England, also has a program using stars for the healthiest choices. Theoretically, these could be helpful. Do you find stars or scores helpful when you’re trying to find healthy foods? How do you let cost affect the choice between two foods in the same category?

P.S. One of the winners on lowest cost for all those nutrients: sweet potatoes. Come back for a sweet potato recipe this weekend.

*I really like kale and blueberries, but even I will admit you need to toss in some protein, fat, and complex carbohydrates.