Frugal Cooking: Choosing Nutrient Rich Foods

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.


4 thoughts on “Frugal Cooking: Choosing Nutrient Rich Foods

  1. We eat mostly grains, beans, fruits, and veggies . . . all are relatively low cost and high nutrition when compared with meat, eggs, and dairy products.

    So, I don’t do any fancy calcuations. I just load up my plate with a variety of different colors, tastes, and textures and enjoy. 😀

  2. I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Katz lecture at a Holistic Health conference earlier this month in NYC. His discussion of the NuVal scoring and the science behind it was very interesting. IMHO, it is well thought out, but remains geared towards leading the conusmer toward healthier choices of packaged items. Fresh fruits, veg and animal proteins are scored, but I will go out on a limb and say that most people understand that blueberries and kale are healthier choices than white bread. I like Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) primarily because it doesn’t use cost as a factor as NuVal does. Here’s a link if you want to check out the ANDI system:

    In any case, are stars and scoring helpful? Possibly. If these systems serve as a visual cue to consumers to make a healthier choice, that’s a step in the right direction.

    • Yes, people generally get that fresh produce is better than white bread! The challenge is often working that knowledge into a grocery budget, which is where nutrition education often seems to stumble. It’s not terribly reasonable to suggest that a someone with a food budget of $2.50/day buy blueberries regularly, however delicious and healthy they might be. As it happens, I’ve only ever seen ANDI deployed at Whole Foods, where all the high scoring foods seemed to have an added premium. Thanks for adding it, though!

      Part of my interests lie in directing people away from choices like iceberg lettuce (and even romaine… I know, salad is “healthy”) and toward more nutrient dense vegetable choices. Is that item really an efficient use of our agricultural system and food budget? I do think the scores lose a lot of their meaning when you are comparing across food groups, just because of the inherent differences between eggs and tomatoes, so it’s fairly silly to compare tortilla chips and apples.

  3. As far as I know, ANDI is only employed at Whole Foods markets currently. However, people can check out the ANDI ratings of foods online or in Fuhrman’s publication. I’m with you regarding nutrition education. I’ll be certified as a Holistic Health Counselor in June and I firmly believe that the vast majority of Americans need some support with making sense of nutrition science so they can make sensible, nutrient dense food choices (even on a budget). I feed my family of 4 on a budget of $150/week, so that’s about $5 a day PP. We follow a nutritarian approach that is rich with greens, veg, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds. We are gluten free, dairy free and mostly vegan (one child likes meat and my DH does on occasion as well). Where I see the big challenge for most Americans is time and the time it takes to cook a healthy meal. You and I know that it doesn’t have to be a daunting task… that with prep and a plan and some basic techniques, healthy cooking is attainable and even a joyful endeavour. But there are a lot of folks out there who hit the drive through regularly, or grab the ramen noodles, a microwave or frozen meal or a can of something or other and call that dinner. In those instances, knowing that an apple is higher scoring than the baked apple chip snack or those tortilla chips, simply because those are the choices that people are making. The tortilla chip may be marketed as “healthy” with whole grain labelling and zero trans fats, etc, but surely we agree that knowing that the apple is the healthier whole food choice(even is that means the knowledge comes from a cross comparative scale) is helpful.

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