With grocery prices rising fast, more of us than ever want to find ways to save money on our food bills. I’ve always felt eating plant-based foods is one significant way to control costs, and a recent study out of the United Kingdom confirms that by calculating that vegan meals can chop grocery bills by up to one-third.
The price modeling study, conducted by researchers at Oxford University and published in The Lancet Planetary Health, examined the cost of food in 150 countries. Based on 2017 prices published by the World Bank’s International Comparison Program, the study found that substituting plant-based for animal-based foods could reduce food bills in rich nations, including the United States.
Specifically, the study found that vegan diets were the most economical and could reduce grocery bills by as much as 34 percent compared to the food costs of a typical Western diet. In terms of budget-friendliness, vegan diets were followed by vegetarian diets, with the potential to slash food costs by 31 percent; flexitarian diets, which could cut costs by 14 percent; and vegetable-heavy pescatarian diets, which could actually increase costs by 2 percent.
The study examined two types of vegan diets – one that included more grains and one that included more vegetables – and found that while both saved money, the grain-based vegan diet was the most affordable of all the diets it analyzed. Around the world, fruits and vegetables cost more than grains and legumes, according to the study’s authors. None of the diets modeled by the researchers included ultra-processed food products.
“We think the fact that vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets can save you a lot of money is going to surprise people,” said author Marco Springmann, a senior researcher in population health at the Oxford Martin School, in a university news report about the study. “When scientists like me advocate for healthy and environmentally friendly eating, it’s often said we’re sitting in our ivory towers promoting something financially out of reach for most people. This study shows it’s quite the opposite. These diets could be better for your bank balance as well as for your health and … the planet.”
For years, the perception that vegan food is more costly has been a regular criticism leveled at plant-based diets.
Before undertaking the price comparison study, Oxford University researchers noted a growing scholarly understanding of the health costs and climate costs of animal-based foods. However, they found less research (and what did exist was conflicting) about the costs to consumers of animal-based vs. plant-based foods.
The Oxford study went beyond mere bills at the supermarket checkout lane. The study found that if a number of food-related costs not currently included in food prices were accounted for, then the price of plant-based diets would drop even further. These external costs included diet-related healthcare spending and greenhouse gas emissions caused by growing and transporting food.
According to the study, if climate costs were accounted for in food prices, it would boost the cost-saving ability of vegan eating to 45 percent compared to standard diets, while if healthcare costs were included, a vegan meal plan would reduce food costs by 47 percent. If both types of costs were included, a vegan diet would shave 53 percent off grocery bills, according to the researchers.
“There are many other impacts of the food system that are currently not reflected in food prices, including biodiversity impacts, as well as air and water pollution,” the study authors noted.
One significant healthcare cost that might drop with more people eating vegan food in the U.S. is the cost of treating moderate-to-severe COVID-19 infections. Throughout 2021, a trickle of medical research began to uncover a link between plant-heavy diets and milder COVID infections.
In June, a study published in the BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health journal found that among 2,884 frontline healthcare workers in six countries, including the U.S., those who followed a plant-based diet had a 73 percent lower risk of moderate-to-severe COVID compared to healthcare workers who ate more animal-based foods.
In September, medical journal Gut published a study out of Massachusetts General Hospital, which analyzed data from 592,571 participants in a smart-phone based study of COVID symptoms and found that those who ate the most plant-based food had a 9 percent lower risk of developing COVID and a 41 percent lower risk of developing severe COVID. Study participants came from the U.S. and U.K.
For decades, medical studies have accumulated showing plant-based eating protects against many of the top causes of death in the U.S. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020 (the latest year for which statistics are available), the top two causes of death remained heart disease followed by cancer, both linked to high consumption of animal-based foods. Heart disease deaths saw their largest increase since 2012, jumping 4.2 percent in 2020. COVID was the third leading cause of death in 2020.
Deaths from diabetes and Alzheimer’s, two diseases correlated with animal-heavy diets, rose 15.4 percent and 9.8 percent, respectively, in 2020. Of the 11 top causes of U.S. deaths in 2020, only two (unintentional injuries and suicide) have no known link to diet. The potential link between developing severe influenza and pneumonia (the ninth leading cause of death) hasn’t been well studied. All the rest – stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease and kidney disease – correlate with the consumption of animal-based foods, and all have shown improvement or reversal in patients who switch to plant-based meals.
But healthcare costs aren’t the only debit not accounted for in current food prices. U.S. meat subsidies also skew prices at the supermarket checkout and around the globe.
According to a paper published last year in the Columbia Journal of International Affairs, the U.S. spends nearly $38 billion each year on agricultural subsidies, with less than one percent of it going to vegetable and fruit farmers. Instead, the lion’s share of government support goes to livestock farmers and farmers who grow commodity crops, which are used to feed livestock or to produce highly processed food products. The same paper noted that these U.S. subsidies not only skew food prices in the U.S., they also depress international market prices for commodity crops, causing many farmers in poor nations to give up farming and forcing their governments to import food that could be grown locally if the economics were different.
This brings us back to the Oxford University study, which also examined food prices in poor nations. According to the researchers, while eating vegan in wealthy nations can save consumers money, it is a different story in developing nations. There, current diets are often nutritionally inadequate. Because the researchers assessed the cost of following nutritionally adequate vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, pescatarian and standard Western diets, the residents of poor countries would have to pay more just to reach that standard, whichever type of diet they followed.
Finally, while the Oxford University study adds high-quality, much-needed data to policy discussions about food costs, vegan and vegetarian shoppers have known about these savings for generations. During the past few months, I’ve been spending time in the Portland Room at the Portland Public Library, where, thanks to help from archivist Abraham Alain Schechter, I’ve uncovered historical evidence of the affordability of vegetarian food.
Half a century ago, for instance, the Maine Sunday Telegram ran a story under the headline: “How to Slash Your Grocery Bill by 25%.” The piece, published on Aug. 20, 1972, reports on the thriftiness of eating vegetarian. Reporter Lloyd Ferris compared the price his family of four paid for groceries, on average $25 each week, with that of meat-eaters in a University of Maine history class he was taking; they spent an average of $35 to $50 a week.
“After a year of vegetarian living,” Ferris wrote, “I sometimes think – perhaps a trifle smugly – that my meat-eating friends suffer unnecessarily.”
I don’t feel at all smug. I feel sad, in noting that this unnecessary suffering has dragged on for much longer than 50 years.
Go back even further, for example 169 years to Oct. 6, 1853, when Jeremiah Hacker’s alternative newspaper, the Portland Pleasure Boat, printed an essay from the American Vegetarian Society. “As much nourishment for the body can be procured from farinaceous or vegetable food for three cents, as can be obtained from animal food for thirty cents,” the article stated.
The recent research out of Oxford University adds scholarly confirmation to the anecdotal information that has been known for more than a century. Eating vegan and vegetarian have long been the thrifty choice in Maine.
Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected] Twitter: @AveryYaleKamila
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