Does a healthy diet cost more than a junk-food diet in America?
That depends on whom you ask, how you measure food and, most important, if you know how to cook.
Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a new analysis indicating that fruits, vegetables, grains and low-fat milk tend to be less expensive by weight and serving size than fatty, sugary foods and meat, fish and poultry.
The takeaway message, according to its authors: Healthful foods actually cost less than foods we are supposed to restrict.
This ran counter to many studies that have measured the cost of "good" and "bad" foods by calorie and concluded that nutrient-poor foods generally cost less.
But recently another group of researchers, including Adam Drewnowski, director of nutritional sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, decided to look at it from another angle: by the cost of foods that deliver key nutrients, especially those associated with lower risk of chronic disease.
In the study, they found that foods rich in key nutrients did cost more per calorie than their nutrient-poor counterparts.
"By contrast, nutrients associated with higher disease risk were associated with lower diet costs," wrote Drewnowski and his colleagues in the study. "The cost variable may help somewhat explain why lower-income groups fail to comply with dietary guidelines and have highest rates of diet-related chronic disease."
USDA researcher Andrea Carlson objects to the way Drewnowski's group used calories as a standard of measurement. And Drewnowski objects to the way the USDA used weight as a measurement when, he notes, some of the fruits and vegetables included are composed of 90 percent water.
But the two can agree on one thing: Those who know how to cook are at a distinct advantage when it comes to nutrition on the cheap.
Heat 4 cups water to a boil. Meanwhile, cook the 2 cups brown or white rice and ½ teaspoon salt with 1 tablespoon lard or olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring to coat the rice with the fat. Pour the water over the rice. Let the water boil down until you can see the surface of the rice. Cover; turn to a low flame. Simmer until the rice is tender.
Cover 3 cups dried beans with 2 inches water in a bowl or stockpot. Soak overnight. Drain the water from the beans. Place the beans in a stockpot; fill with water to cover beans by 1 inch. Simmer until soft, 1 hour or more. Wait until beans are tender before adding 1 teaspoon salt. Taste for seasoning. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil or lard in a heavy-bottomed saucepan; add ½ green pepper, finely diced; ½ onion, finely diced; and 3 cloves garlic, minced. Season with a pinch of salt. Cook until fragrant and tender. Stir in ¼ cup cilantro; cook until herb gives off its aroma. Add half a can (from an 8-ounce can) tomato sauce; cook to meld flavors. Drain the cooked beans, saving 1 cup cooking water; pour beans into the sofrito mixture. Add cooking water; heat to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. You also can add half packet of Sazon Goya seasoning blend and/or ¼ cup chunks cooked winter squash for extra flavor and texture. Serve over the rice with a nice green salad.
Makes 6 servings.