Americans Spend Almost 25 Percent of Grocery Money on Processed Food

A new study shows us our surprisingly unhealthy grocery store habits

While the excessive portions dished out at American restaurants can’t be helping the obesity epidemic, new data shows that we’re also making poor choices at the grocery store. Some new charts compiled by Planet Money as part of its Graphing America series on National Public Radio’s website reveal that we spend more of our grocery money on processed foods and sweets (22.9 percent) than anything else.

NPR defined "processed foods" as products like frozen dinners, canned soups, and snacks. One of the charts showed that the amount of money today’s Americans spend on those foods — which tend to be packed with salt and more chemicals than natural ingredients — has almost doubled from only 11.6 percent back in 1982. We spend more on processed foods than we spend on meats, fruits, and vegetables, grains and baked goods, beverages or dairy products — whereas 30 years ago, processed foods took a backseat to all of those food categories except beverages.

Image: National Public Radio/Planet Money

It’s not just that we’re choosing the wrong things because we like them; part of the problem is that those processed foods are also cheaper than they used to be. The Huffington Post pointed out that the cost of sugar has dropped by 16 percent over the last 30 years, making cookies and candy more difficult for us to refuse.

“Processed foods are more ‘energy dense’ than fresh foods; they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening,” wrote Michael Pollan in The New York Times Magazine. It’s possible that part of the reason we’re now spending so much more on processed foods is that they give us the option of buying plenty of calories for a much smaller price tag.

But while they’re cheap to buy, we could be paying for those choices later in life. A high-sodium diet can increase your risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. And there’s no arguing that many of our processed foods are chock full of salt. Check out our chart ranking 100 popular frozen meal brands by sodium content, as well as our chart ranking 125 popular soup brands by sodium per serving.

The United States is currently leading the rest of the world in the consumption of packaged food; in 2010, Americans ate 31 percent more packaged food per person than their counterparts in nearly all other countries, according to the New York Times. "Americans tend to graze rather than sit down and eat a full meal, so the food is tailored for convenience," Mark Gehlhar, who has studied global food consumer preferences at the Economic Research Service of the Agriculture Department, told NYT. To learn more, take a look at this eye-opening infographic from NYT that shows just how much packaged food we eat versus how much fresh food we eat compared with other countries.

The NPR graphs also showed that we’re spending less on groceries than we used to. In 1982, groceries consumed almost 13 percent of our spending; today, we spend a little more than 8 percent. We now spend less on meat, which is mostly a result of meat prices drastically dropping in the past few decades. We don’t have to splurge as much as we used to if we want a lovely at-home steak dinner — steak prices dropped by 30 percent.

And if you thought healthy food these days is expensive, you should note that we’re at least getting lettuce, bananas, and apples for significantly less than we used to. The cost of lettuce decreased by 30.9 percent, bananas by 26.3 percent and tomatoes by 21.6 percent.

With the sneaky ways manufacturers have learned to market products as seemingly healthy even when they’re not, it’s sometimes difficult to discern the good food choices from the bad. When grocery shopping, try to spend most of your time in the produce section and ignore the snack aisles. You should mostly avoid the inner aisles all together, and instead peruse the produce, meat, and dairy sections that are usually located in the outer areas of the supermarket.

— Melissa Valliant, HellaWella


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