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What Price Junk Food?


At my Washington supermarket recently, 10 Twinkies cost $2.89 and 10 oranges were $1.99. You would have saved 90 cents, 1,000 calories and 60 grams of fat if you made oranges rather than Twinkies your afternoon snack.

On the other hand, a serving of crinkle-cut French fries cost 10 cents last week, while an Idaho potato was about 25 cents. In this case, you would have saved money but certainly not fat if you went the French-fry route.

What price junk food? Or: Does it cost more or less money to eat a low-fat diet?

"The question comes up for us all the time," says Suzanne McNutt, senior research nutritionist at the George Washington University Lipid Research Clinic, in Washington, D.C. McNutt says that when groups of consumers talk to the staff, they always say, "it costs too much to eat healthy."

The question comes up particularly during recessionary times. And it is a perennial concern for low-income consumers, who may not have access to a wide variety of fresh foods and who are grappling with a host of other issues besides whether the oil they buy is nutritionally correct.

The answer depends a lot on what you're willing to eat.

"If you're determined to eat nothing but raspberries, a low-fat diet will cost you dearly," said John McClung, spokesman for the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Assn. "If you're willing to eat onions and boiled potatoes, a low-fat diet is relatively inexpensive."

The answer also depends on your shopping habits. If you follow sales, use coupons, freeze what you don't use and buy house brands, large-package sizes and fewer convenience items, you will obviously save more money following a low-fat diet than if your shopping tactics include stocking up on single-serving, microwaveable Tater Tots.

If, on the other hand, you buy a lot of frozen low-fat entrees, nonfat salad dressings and buy all your produce at the salad bar, it could cost you a lot more to keep healthy.

Taking all this into consideration, here are some strategies for lowering the cost of your food bill while following the recommendations for a low-fat diet.

* Eat five fruits and vegetables a day. Fruits and vegetables can be expensive, but not if you buy in season and/or on sale.

For example, at the prices current in Washington, if your lunch bag included a Red Delicious apple (about 17 cents) or a California navel orange (20 cents), it would have cost you considerably less than a candy bar (about 40 cents) or a one-ounce bag of Doritos, Fritos or Ruffles, all 31 cents each.

For salt seekers, pretzels and popcorn (popped from plain kernels and salted at home) are the salted snacks lowest in fat and least expensive per pound, according to 1990 Snack Food Assn. data. Cheddar popcorn, on the other hand, is at the other end of the price and fat scales.

The least expensive fruits are bananas and oranges, government data indicate. The least expensive vegetables are onions, white potatoes, cabbage, carrots and celery.

Of course, you pay a lot to have carrots and celery cut up. Whole carrots were 59 cents a pound recently at my supermarket; cut into sticks, they were $1.99 per pound. Celery cut into sticks was about twice as expensive as celery by the bunch.

But buying at the salad bar isn't always more expensive. A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that, at the time of the study, some items cost about half as much on the salad bar as they did elsewhere in the store; these included alfalfa sprouts, pineapple, canned mandarin oranges, tuna, American cheese, domestic ham, sunflower seeds, croutons, chow mein noodles, jalapeno peppers, pitted olives and bread pudding. The worst salad bar buys were cucumbers, carrots, green cabbage, yellow onions and watermelon, the USDA concluded.

* Choose nonfat or low-fat dairy products. When it comes to milk, it's easy to save money and fat; as the fat content decreases, so does the price. Other dairy products are a different story.

Nonfat, low-fat and regular yogurt of the same brand are frequently the same price. The same goes for higher- and lower-fat versions of ricotta cheese and some brands of cottage cheese, sour cream and ice cream. So the processed dairy product portion of your food bill should remain the same whether you buy the high- or low-fat version; the key is to buy the brand with the lowest cost per pound.

As for cheeses, nonfat cheeses tend to be more expensive than the lower-and regular-fat versions.

* Eat lean cuts of meat. Shirley Gerrior, a nutritionist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, believes there is some association between the cost of meats and their fat content; more specifically, many lower-fat cuts cost more. It is a difficult theory to test, given that yields of red meat differ depending on the amount of fat, bone and moisture loss during cooking.

But using recent supermarket prices, nutrition information from the American Meat Institute and USDA yield data, a few generalizations can be made.

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