Association between Total Diet Cost and Diet Quality Is Limited

By Carlson, Andrea; Dong, Diansheng et al. | Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, April 2014 | Go to article overview

Association between Total Diet Cost and Diet Quality Is Limited


Carlson, Andrea, Dong, Diansheng, Lino, Mark, Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics


There is a common perception that it costs more to eat a healthy diet than a less healthy one. We derive a panel data model that accounts for unobserved specific individual effects to estimate the relationship between diet quality and total daily food expenditure. Since total daily diet cost and diet quality are both calculated from the foods chosen in our data, we account for the fact that there is an endogenous relationship between diet quality and cost. We find that while total daily food expenditure is statistically significant in relation to diet quality, the degree of association is very small.

Key words: cost of food, diet quality, HEI-2005, NHANES, random-effects model

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Introduction

There is a long-standing policy debate on whether healthy foods cost more than less healthy ones. Researchers have established that eating a healthy diet is possible even on a minimal-cost food budget (Carlson and Stewart, 2011; Stewart et al., 2011b; Carlson, Lino, and Fungwe, 2007; Carlson et al., 2007). In case study experiments, researchers have also worked directly with households to change food purchase habits over time and achieve a healthier diet. When families switch to a low-fat diet (Mitchell et al., 2000) or switch to an overall healthy diet (Raynor et al., 2002), their food budgets can actually be lower than they were before the transition. However, some studies reason that because obesity and poor diet quality occur at higher levels in low-income populations, it may be the case that healthy diets are more expensive than less healthy ones (Aggarwal, Monsivais, and Drewnowski, 2012; Townsend et al., 2009; Drewnowski, 2010a,b; Drewnowski and Barratt-Fornell, 2004). If there is a significant relationship between food expenditure and the healthfulness of the diet, then the obesity problem could be reduced by simply spending more money on food. Other researchers find a range of differences depending on how food prices are measured (Carlson and Frazão, 2012; Stewart et al., 2011a,b) or what time period and geographic region are covered (Todd, Leibtag, and Penberthy, 2011).

These diverse findings suggest that the solution to the obesity epidemic is more complex than a simple cost barrier. However, data that contain both actual expenditure and actual consumption-the food eaten by individuals, not the food purchased-is usually not available. To our knowledge there are no large-scale studies that combine both total food expenditures and the healthfulness of the foods chosen by the individual in order to assess whether those who choose a healthy diet actually spend more on food than those who do not.

Researchers have used a variety of methods to proxy one or both of these measures in the data. The most common is to use food expenditure data for key food categories such as vegetables and fruits and snack foods or foods high in added sugars to proxy for food eaten. Beatty (2008) uses the 1996 Canadian Family Food Expenditure Survey to look at the relationship between the number of shopping trips, total food expenditure, and the nutrient content or food group of purchased foods over a two-week period. Their study concludes that purchases of foods high in fat increase as total expenditure goes up, but foods high in carbohydrates and fruit and vegetable purchases decrease. Using data from the 2000 Consumer Expenditure Survey, Stewart, Blisard, and Jolliffe (2003) find that while total expenditures on vegetables and fruits and sweets and snacks are greater for higher income individuals, the ratio of expenditures is about the same as for lower income households. As Stewart, Blisard, and Jolliffe note, the limitation of these studies is that the actual quantities of fruits, vegetables, sweets, or snack foods purchased or actually consumed is unknown. Since there is a wide variation in the prices of fruits and vegetables (Carlson and Frazão, 2012; Stewart et al., 2011a), we cannot conclude from these studies whether income or total expenditure is related to the actual consumption of food. …

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