Food is something you buy every week. Chances are, you have little knowledge whether the food you buy has a good value. There are a few known examples that we are all aware of. We all know beans, eggs and lentils are a cheap source of protein. We also know that some snacks, such as potato chips, are more expensive in terms of price/calories. Because a lot of what you buy is in between the two extreme examples you just read, the price you pay for food is largely a mystery. What should you buy to get a good return for your money? There are hundreds of products in the grocery store, how are you supposed to know which ones are good value?
Enter the price in £/kcal.
Knowing the price per calorie helps you control your grocery expenditures. The nutritional guidelines are in kcal/day, not kg/day. An adult consumes on average 2000kcal/day. The price per kg, the information we get on the label, is pretty much useless unless you compare the exact same type of food. Comparing one kg of 3.5% fat milk vs. one kg of another brand of 3.5% fat milk makes sense. But once you compare the price per kg of 3.5% fat milk with the price per kg of 1.5% fat milk, the numbers have no meaning. You suspect that the 1.5% fat milk should be cheaper, because it has less fat, that is, less calories, but by how much?
If you do control your grocery expenditure, it will make a difference. Imagine you spend about 600£ month for your family of four. If you decrease your expenses with as little as 1%, then you can save 6£ in a month alone. Because, as you will see, the differences in price when expressed in £/kcal, are rather large, we expect you to save even more than that, easily in the double digits.
Let’s see a few examples from the online grocery store at www.tesco.com
We have obtained the numbers in this article with the Essential Food Label Chrome extension on a Tesco online groceries (www.tesco.com) shopping basket. The numbers are accurate as of July 2017.
Before we start, one more detail: the price per kcalories is given in two ways: in p/kcal or Monthly Grocery Equivalent. The symbol “p” is one pence, that is, a hundredth of a £. The monthly Grocery Equivalent is the money you would spend on groceries in a month if you bought all your groceries at the price per calorie of the given product. It is easier to understand MGE because most of us have an idea how much we spend on groceries for a family member. If it all gets to confusing, just compare the same numbers among products. Lower is better.
Butter or vegetable spreads?
Butter is better for you than vegetable spreads on so many levels that I don’t even know where to start. Joan Dye Gussow’s famous quote: "I Trust Cows More than I Trust Chemists" should do it for now. The link is here. The only reason one can possibly have to buy vegetable spreads instead of butter is price. The question is: are they cheaper? If so, by how much?
Butter is expected to be cheaper than vegetable spreads, and indeed it is. There is one exception though: “light” vegetable spreads. A “light”, that is low fat vegetable spread is more expensive than butter.
Dark chocolate or candy?
You may think that dark chocolate is a premium product and candy is a cheap everyday product. Chocolate should be more expensive, but is it in reality? If it is, by how much? Let’s see.
Again we see that good quality dark chocolate sometimes is cheaper, sometimes is more expensive than candies. In any case, the price per calorie for dark chocolate is rather average indeed.
Now, let’s check a range of foods.
The brands and packages are taken at random. Are the numbers always what you expect?
Bread, rice and potatoes are cheap sources of calories, but potatoes, at 0.04£/kcal are by far the most cost effective, the price of bread being more than 50% higher. Rice is also a good value at almost the same price.
At 0.55p/kcalorie, this chicken breast surely is expensive. The Ham Hock is quite pricey too, at 0.86p/kcal or a whopping £523 Monthly Grocery Equivalent. The Tesco German Salami seems to be the value choice in the meats we looked at, at 0.26p/kcal, or £157 Monthly Grocery Equivalent.
What more can I say? Eat your vegetables! At 0.11p/kcal or £65 Monthly Grocery Equivalent, the carrot is not only healthy but good value too. Same holds for broccoli (almost half the price of chicken breast) and parsnips.