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May 11, 2010 / dgiessman

Why a Big Mac Costs Less Than a Salad

By CATHERINE RAMPELL

The chart was put together by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, but its figures still, alas, look quite relevant. Thanks to lobbying, Congress chooses to subsidize foods that we’re supposed to eat less of.

Of course, there are surely other reasons why burgers are cheaper than salads. These might include production costs, since harvesting apples is probably more naturally seasonal than slaughtering cows (even though both are in demand year-round). Transportation and storage costs might also play a role, as it’s probably easier to keep ground beef fresh and edible for extended periods of time, by freezing it, than cucumbers.

Whatever the cause of the pricing change, there is little doubt that many healthful foods have gotten much more expensive relative to unhealthful ones. David Leonhardt showed this in another remarkable chart, published here last year, that displays how the prices of different food groups have changed relative to their pricing 30 years ago:

I put this together on Tuesday, with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It shows the price of different foods and beverages over the last three decades. The price of each food or beverage is set equal to 1 in January 1978, and the chart then shows how the price has changed since then.

It’s a fairly striking pattern. Unhealthful foods, with the exceptions of cookies (the blue line), have gotten a lot cheaper. Relative to the price of everything else in the economy, sodas (the orange line) are 33 percent cheaper than they were in 1978. Butter (dark brown) is 29 percent cheaper. Beer (gray) is 15 percent cheaper.

Fish (the yellow line), by contrast, is 2 percent more expensive. Vegetables (purple) are 41 percent more expensive. Fruits (green) are 46 percent more expensive.

The price of oranges, to take one extreme example (not shown in the chart), has more than doubled, relative to everything else. So if in 1978, a bag of oranges cost the same as one big bottle of soda, today that bag costs the same as three big bottles of soda.

In my column this morning, I mention that the average 18-year-old today is 15 pounds heavier than the average 18 year-old in the late 1970s. Adults have put on even more weight during that period. The average woman in her 60s is 20 pounds heavier than the average 60-something woman in the late 1970s. The average man in his 60s is 25 pounds heavier. When you look at the chart, you start to understand why.

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