WASHINGTON – The cost of a healthy diet may not be as high as consumers believe, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS).

A common perception among consumers is that a diet consistent with the USDA’s recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 is unaffordable for many Americans. So, the ERS took on the task of measuring the cost of a healthy diet. Researchers not only found more than one way to measure the cost of healthy foods. They discovered that healthy foods may actually cost less than less healthy foods.

The ERS price comparison study found that the metric used to measure the price of food items has a significant effect on which foods are more expensive. For example, the authors found that:

• Low-calorie foods with a given weight appear to have a higher price when the price is measured per calorie. Vegetables and fruits, which are low in calories, tend to be a relatively expensive way to buy food energy.

• Less healthy foods — especially foods high in saturated fat and added sugar — tend to be high in calories and to have a low price per calorie.

• Vegetables, grains, fruit and dairy foods are less expensive than most protein foods and foods high in saturated fat, added sugars and/or sodium when measured on the basis of edible weight or average portion size.

• It costs less to meet the grains, dairy and fruit recommendations than those for vegetables or protein foods when following the food group recommendations at ChooseMyPlate.gov.

The ERS study used three price metrics to compare the prices of healthy and less healthy foods: The price per calorie, per edible gram and per average portion. The study’s authors also calculated the daily cost of meeting the recommendations on the ChooseMyPlate.gov website.

Healthy foods were defined as food items that:

• Contain an amount of food in at least one of the major food groups (vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and protein foods) equal to at least half the portion size that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 201 uses for measuring the nutrients in that food.

• Contain only moderate amounts of saturated fats, added sugars and sodium.