The daily task of putting together meals brings challenges, benefits, and tradeoffs. Economic, health, and cultural factors lead many people to question the decision to buy processed foods, but it isn’t always practical for consumers to cook from scratch. Also, the sticker price is not the only cost to consider. Recent research points to the importance of including the value of people’s time and skills when adding up the costs of food.
To help consumers learn more about these and other considerations, RTI built an online tool called Food Value Analysis.
In a market saturated with recipes and nutrition information, Food Value Analysis provides a unique resource: a side-by-side comparison of the nutritional content and monetary and time costs of home recipes versus canned or frozen versions of the same dish. Designed for nutrition educators, it is available to the public and easy for the average person to use.
Building in Data on Nutrition, Food Safety, and Total Cost
In gathering the data behind the Food Value Analysis tool, we strove for transparency and realism. We selected about 100 home-cooked foods, from simple vegetables to complete entrees. With the canned and frozen counterparts added in, the tool contains a total of about 250 foods. That selection includes a few desserts and baked goods, but no chips, fries, or other items generally considered to be junk food.
All of the home-cooked recipes and most of the nutritional information and prices came from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) databases, with preparation times from widely circulated cookbooks. In addition to information on nutritional content, we included estimated shelf life and safety considerations for different ingredients, such as raw meat, poultry, shellfish, and dairy products.
For the monetary side of the equation, we included a calculator that allows users to see how much it “costs” them to cook a given food based on their hourly wage. If the user does not enter a wage, the calculator defaults to the U.S. average of $19.47 per hour.
The money factor is one of the strengths of Food Value Analysis. Frozen Asian-style chicken with vegetables and rice, for example, costs about $1.41 per serving, nearly twice the $.72 per serving for the home-cooked recipe. Adding wages to the equation brings a new perspective to the comparison. Using the average wage, the 20-minute prep time for the home-cooked recipe brings the total cost to $2.34 per serving. The negligible prep time involved in microwaving the frozen meal leaves the total cost of that option unchanged.
Food Value Analysis doesn’t answer every question consumers might have, such as information for people looking to accommodate food allergies or avoid preservatives. But it does make important, basic data such as calories and fat content accessible, helping consumers sort out the complex composition of the food they buy and prepare.
A Dynamic, User-Friendly Resource for Nutrition Professionals and the Public
Launched in 2013 and updated in December 2015, the Food Value Analysis tool in its current form is the foundation of a dynamic, user-friendly resource for both professionals and the public.
Along with our partners, we are spreading the word about the tool with the nutrition educators who can bring it to a wider audience. We have included it in published articles and conference presentations. And ConAgra Foods, a backer of Food Value Analysis through the North American branch of the International Life Sciences Institute, includes information from the project and a link to the actual tool on its website for nutrition professionals.
As we continue this work to raise awareness, we see great potential for Food Value Analysis to better serve the needs of the American people. Expanding the database of foods is a logical next step. In a market where consumers increasingly look for data when making everyday decisions, it has excellent prospects.