Why Are Whole Foods Typically More Expensive Than Processed?

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We’ve all been there: standing in aisle twelve with a loaf of Wonder Bread in one hand, and something labeled “whole grain” or “organic” in the other. Though the whole grain bread may be healthier, it’s also a dollar or two more expensive. Close perusal of the Wonder loaf’s list of ingredients reveals some 29 tongue-tying components, while the whole grain loaf has five or six, none over two syllables. So why are more heavily processed foods and those with more ingredients typically less expensive than whole foods?

ECON 101

The most obvious factor is rooted in the basic economics. Companies that have the capability to produce food on a mass scale can keep costs down by buying ingredients in huge amounts (think gross tonnage of flour, not pounds). Add to this a highly mechanized process of production, and even more is saved on not having to pay hourly workers. Perhaps the largest contributor, though, is federal subsidies. The government provides farmers with anywhere from ten to thirty billion dollars annually to support the production of our agricultural staples—wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton, livestock, etc. Since Uncle Sam is covering some of the production costs, manufacturers are able to keep their own costs in check, and consumers benefit price-wise (although, since farm subsidies are often just our rerouted American tax dollars, we’re not saving quite as much as we think). Organic farms rarely receive government subsidies, another reason the food they produce is typically pricier.

Furthermore, processed foods retain their quality exponentially longer than unprocessed, far and away their greatest virtue. Butylated hydroxyanisole, sodium benzoate, diglycerides, and a laundry list of other preservatives, fillers, and emulsifiers are added during processing both to extend shelf life and help the food retain its consistency. The added expense of these extra ingredients is more than offset by a given company’s ability to produce foods in mass quantities and then ship them all over the globe owing to their chemically aided stability.

WHAT’S LEFT BEHIND

The naturally occurring elements in all organic material are inherently volatile and will change or, in the case of food products, degrade over time. With whole grains like bulgur, oats, and quinoa, the three components of the grain—the bran, germ, and endosperm—are left intact. The bran and the germ retain essentially all of the grain’s nutritional value, but, as they also contain oils that are apt to spoil quickly, they’re stripped away during processing. So, even though whole grain flour uses about 25 percent less wheat than refined flour since it includes the entire grain, the refined wheat used to make white flour can be stored for lengthy periods of time without risk of spoilage, which allows companies to keep huge amounts on hand, eliminating the need to buy more every time it’s needed.

Organic farms and production methods also incur a number of added costs that are built into the price of the packaged product. To be certified organic, a farmer has to follow strict guidelines for growing that prohibit pesticides, chemical fertilizer, or irrigation that repurposes runoff water; basically, all the things that make growing and farming easier but, arguably, make for more unhealthy food. As more previously conventional farms attempt to turn organic to keep pace with trends, all of these rules have to be in place for at least three years before the farm can be certified, during which time many are unable to grow anything at all as old practices are replaced and the soil is given a chance to leach itself of any residual chemicals. Given the labor intensity of organic farming, the yield is often smaller than a factory farm, so the farmer is forced to charge more for his product. 

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April 1, 2013 - 9:30am
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