Food is confusing

One of the consequences of graduating and getting an apartment is supplying your own food – Which I actually enjoy! But it also means I have entered the complex maze of “which brand of x do I buy today?” Having done this for a few months, I have discovered some non-intuitive results:

Buying in bulk is not always cheaper

But, but… economies of scale! Yeah, that’s what I thought too. However, Walmart[1] kindly provides a price per ounce, which is what you need to be looking at, and that price/ounce has led me to buy smaller containers of certain things. Also, sometimes the price will curve on you. For example, the 8 packs of yogurt are more expensive than the 4 packs, but if you get the bulk single container, that’s the cheapest by ounce. I’ve seen this too with pasta sauce and cereal, among other things.

The cheaper brand is often healthier

Wait… what? They’re trying to pay me to be healthy? Yep! I don’t have statistics for anything, all I know is I keep comparing brand x and brand y of something (beans, pasta sauce, vegetables, fried onions, cinnamon rolls, etc etc), and I keep picking the cheaper brand on the basis of nutritional value. Little things like an extra gram of fiber, more vitamins and minerals – or more of them, poly- and mono- unsaturated fats instead of saturated fat[2], lower sodium, you get the idea. I mean, I like eating healthy, but I don’t understand why the more expensive or “brand name” food providers haven’t caught on…

You don’t always get what you pay for

The graph of quality vs price seems to be logarithmic. In other words, you’re welcome to keep buying Ragu pasta sauce, but for less than $1 you could look forward to making pasta![3] But I didn’t notice the jump from Prego to Whole Foods’ fancy special sauce (which incidentally, was also less healthy), although admittedly, I did not try all 137 varieties… Also, can you really tell the difference between 2% and 3% fat for ground beef? I haven’t even tried 2%, because I can’t imagine there’s a real difference, although apparently it’s valued at something like $2.

I’ve learned a few other interesting things, like the milk in the back will stay fresh longer because it’s newer, but you probably already knew that, so I’ll stop here. The real point is, pay attention to the labels – occasionally they have useful information.



[1]And probably other grocery stores too, I just go to Walmart
[2]Yes, fat can actually be good for you!
[3]That’s great though if you like ragu. It just ruined a meal for me, and I’m still bitter…

About Bion

I'm a software developer at Modo Payments, a mobile payment provider. When I'm not hacking away the office, you I'm usually at home hacking on something else. Or practicing Aikido. Anyway, I just post things here that Google couldn't help me with, so maybe it'll help you in the future. Since you're reading this, I guess it worked :)
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4 Responses to Food is confusing

  1. Drew says:

    FYI, the allowable margin of error for nutrition labels is about 20%. http://www.expertfoods.com/FAQ/labelaccuracy.php

    So if the difference between reported nutrients is small, it may be entirely due to precision fail rather than a real difference in nutritional content.

    • Bion says:

      That’s an interesting article, I was not aware of that. But, I don’t think it affects the result of my observations, only (perhaps) the degree. I’ll look into next time I’m getting groceries and update with some numbers…

  2. Drew says:

    I have solved the mystery of bulk foods being more expensive.

    * Unlike prepackaged foods, where loss is binary (either you stole it or you didn’t), with bulk foods, you spill a little on the floor with every purchase.

    * Most “bulk” foods are not really bulk. For instance, the common case for the bulk spices isle is to buy LESS than a full jar of spices, because you only need it for this one dish. If the common case for the ingredient is to buy a tablespoon of it, it would make sense for the “bulk” version to cost more.

    • Bion says:

      I’m not talking about “bulk” in the sense of “dispense however much you want into a bag.” That’s not selling in bulk, that’s offering in bulk, which in my experience is always more expensive than prepackaged. Probably due to the reasons you listed.

      If you read the paragraph on bulk foods, I’m comparing prepackaged food in various packaging by price per ounce, and concluding that packaging (apparently) matters, but not always in the ways you expect (bigger is not always cheaper). I’m not talking about “bulk” dispensed foods at all.

      Tangentially related, where you aware that the price per ounce for rice cakes changes based on the FLAVOR of rice cake (as well as packaging)? I did not expect this.

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