Cavemen Ate $12 Burgers: A Historical Perspective on Food Prices

Eggs Prices Over TimeWhile I maintain that eating according to the Primal Blueprint doesn’t have to be expensive, it is generally true that with food – as with most other things in life – you get what you pay for. We’re one week into the 21-Day Challenge, and I imagine the cost of healthy food may be on some of your minds. So when our friend David Maren of Tendergrass Farms offered this guest article, I took him up on it.

As a percentage of your income, how does your grocery bill compare to the grocery bills of people in different countries and eras? Are ever-lowering food costs always a good thing, or do they tend to come with trade-offs? Enter David…

One of the greatest challenges facing small grass-based family farmers today is the American expectation of low priced food. As a culture, we’re now accustomed to spending only about 6.8 percent of our income on daily nourishment1 the lowest figure in human history. At the same time, health problems and obesity rise every year. These two realities create a striking correlation between wellness and food investment. Studying U.S. trend lines over the past century shows a direct link between cheap food and poor health.

While historical meal price comparisons can be tricky due to changing exchange rates, inflation, or even currency availability, finding a consistent unit of value can help our understanding. For the sake of discussion, let’s use the value of work as that unit. We’ll measure the value of food in hours worked and real prices – prices adjusted for inflation. While this comparison may not be perfect, it can help us understand historical food prices in today’s context.

For example, if workers today earn about $15.59 per hour (Census Bureau’s average per capita annual income statistic of $27,915 divided by the OECD’s average annual hours worked per US worker of 1,790) and spend an average of $1.75 on each meal (based on the fact that Americans now spend only 6.8% of their income on food according to a report by Washington State University), we could say they spend about 7 minutes working for each meal.

About That $12 Burger

Before we get down to the real analysis of food prices over the last century I thought it would be fun to take a playful look at hunter-gatherer Grok to see how much he “spent” on food. Bear with me if this seems a little bit silly. It’s just my creative attempt at a way to show how hard Grok had to work for his food.

The numbers would vary but it’s safe to assume that Grok hunted and gathered at least 3 hours per day for a bare minimum of 5 days a week.2 That’s an extremely conservative estimate of 15 hours of work for his 21 weekly meals. This translates to almost 45 minutes spent working for each meal instead of the 7 minutes mentioned above. If we convert those 45 minutes that Grok spent “on the job” hunting and gathering food for each meal into modern day wages of $15.59/hour we could say that Grok spent about $11.69 on his primal burger and fries instead of the $1.75 that we spend today for ours off of the Dollar Menu.

Yes, I know Grok didn’t eat three meals a day and he may not have eaten hamburgers with ketchup. Just hang with me, mister anthropologist. Those numbers are imperfect, but the stark contrast between today’s food spending and that of Grok is undeniable.

“Okay”, you say, “So Grok spent a lot on food. I spend less because I’m not a hunter-gatherer. Agriculture makes stuff cheaper.” Sure. But let’s not stop with Grok. Simply consider the fundamental principle that when it comes to food, you almost always get what you pay for. This is true even in agricultural societies. Let’s take a look at more recent times for comparison’s sake.

The 20th Century and Industrial Food

Consider the early 20th century American. In 1913, feedlots didn’t exist, so cows ate grass and the fat composition of beef was more balanced and rich in Omega-3’s and CLA. Crisco and margarine hadn’t inundated the market yet, so everyone had lard in their larders. If you ate chicken at all, your mother cooked up her laying hen that was pecking around near her doorstep eating clover, crickets, and table scraps. Sausage ingredient lists were so short that the butcher could tell you his recipe by memory without mispronouncing a single word. Modern GPS-driven 18-row corn harvesters and government subsidies didn’t exist yet, so grain was expensive and you generally didn’t feed it to animals. Farmers grew vegetables regionally and seasonally without the use of off-farm chemicals like Roundup and anhydrous ammonia. Hired hands picked tomatoes when they were ripe because the gassing technology used to make them red today was not available. Pre-packaged, brand-name foods were unknown in the supermarket. In fact, in 1913, supermarkets didn’t exist.

But here’s the shocker: that stuff wasn’t as cheap as you think. A dozen eggs in 1913 cost about $8.73 in 2013 dollars versus about the $1.93 that they cost in Wal-Mart today.3 Changes in price vary dramatically, but on average food prices have come down a lot.

What Work Buys

That’s a decrease of 82% in hours worked for groceries.

Why Is Our Food So Cheap?

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that average food prices have dropped as much as 82% over the last century. What could possibly have caused such a dramatic change in real food prices? In short, food prices have fallen because the composition of our foods has been compromised by the industrialization of our food system.

Ham, which averaged (in 2013 dollars) about $5.90/LB a hundred years ago averages only $2.69/LB today.3 Doesn’t the fact that we now pay less than half the price that our great grandparents paid for “ham” seem to suggest that we’re possibly not eating what they ate? Taking a closer look at this example, it’s not hard to see that the very definition of “ham” has indeed changed significantly since the early 1900’s. Genetically modified Roundup Ready corn and soy laced with ractopamine is now fed to the pigs from which the ham is made. Huge 2,400-head confinement buildings house the pigs before they are taken to centralized slaughterhouses that kill them by the thousands. Ham recipes now include water, Sodium Phosphates, Carrageenan, Sodium Erythorbate, and Sodium Nitrite. I’d be willing to bet that your great grandmother would notice a significant difference between our 2013 “ham” and the hams that she ate that were cured by a trusted neighbor with salt and brown sugar. Simply put, the changes in the American food system that have enabled food prices to fall as much as 82% over the last century have, as an unintended consequence, altered the composition, lowered the quality, and decreased the healthfulness of our food. Let’s take a little walk through the last 100 years and see how this gradual change occurred.

Lard Consumption

The effect of cheap margarine and Crisco on lard consumption in the US. Lard is now known to be one of the healthiest fats available to man, surpassing even olive oil in terms of healthy fat composition.

Beginning in the 1930s and 40s, increasing mechanization of food production and the advancement of food science technology started to change the American foodscape. At the turn of the 20th century a process was developed for the hydrogenation of liquid oils and by the 40s margarine had taken the place of butter and lard in many American homes. Chemical fertilizers became popular which, in conjunction with the advent of the self-propelled combine harvester, increased crop yields and lowered the prices of grains which eventually lead way to the feedlot model of beef production that we have today.

The signing of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 enabled the construction of the Interstate Highway System which made national food distribution possible. This created a need for further advancements in food technology as Americans were, for the first time, buying huge amounts of foods from thousands of miles away. Preservatives were needed to keep foods tasting like they came from just down the street. National markets justified staggering investments in food processing equipment now that food companies could operate at a much larger scale. As the supply chain got longer, customers lost the direct ability to hold their farmers, butchers, and bakers accountable. Transparency of production was now a thing of the past.

Fierce competition between national food corporations arose which lead to price wars fought with cost cutting measures that often lead to lower quality ingredients. These cheaper ingredients didn’t taste like the real McCoy so food scientists concocted additives, dyes, and artificial flavorings to make up for the difference in taste and appearance. Companies found that product shelf life and margins could be increased by adding chemicals like BHT to packaging. Industrial food processing required processing aids like silicon dioxide to be added to spices to help them flow through the production line. The USDA did its part by allowing these additives to be treated as non-ingredients and therefore not requiring them to be listed on labels. Meat products were infused with water to reduce their price per pound and stabilizers were added to make up for the loss in texture.

Eventually international sourcing of foods became the norm because produce from Mexico, fish from China, and even grass fed beef from Tasmania was cheaper. With this development, even less accountability was possible and fears about food safety became the norm. Americans voted with their forks for cheaper food at any cost and prices continued to decline while rates of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and hypertension exploded.

You Get What You Pay For

This is where we find ourselves today.  The effects of our modern food system touch nearly every part of this country from ecology to economics. But in short, we got exactly what we paid for: cheap food that wasn’t good for us. Food that wasn’t good for our rivers, our fields, our farmers, or our bodies. But this new “food” was indeed cheap. Very, very, cheap.

But there are alternatives. As I mentioned, Americans spend about 6.8% of their income on food. That is an anomaly from both a historical and a geographic perspective. In Portugal, most people spend twice that much on food. In France that figure is nearly at 13.5%. In both Japan and Italy, it’s more than 14.4%. And these countries are, in many other ways, quite comparable to the US.1 They just make eating good food a higher priority than we do and this choice is reflected directly in lower rates of obesity.4

You may say that you can’t afford those pastured eggs for $7.50/dozen at the farmers market. I’d be willing to bet that with your current lifestyle choices, that may be true. For some people, scraping together enough money to eat three solid meals of meats, eggs, and veggies of any kind at all is very difficult and after all it is much better to eat low quality meats, eggs, and veggies than Chef Boyardee. But for most of you reading this, there are choices you can make in other areas of your life that will make those delicious pasture raised orange-yolked eggs affordable. Do you really need two iPads? Would you be better off going on another vacation this year or staying home and spending that extra 5% of your salary on food that makes you feel good? We talk about the ancestral lifestyle rather than just the ancestral diet. Lifestyles are comprised of a series of choices that go far beyond not eating Frosted Flakes for breakfast. I can assure you that grass fed beef raised by American farmers who are struggling to survive in the modern marketplace will hands-down cost more than any other option you have. And it’s worth every last 2013 penny.

It’s up to you. You get what you pay for. As one Tendergrass farmer, Joel Salatin, puts it, “Have you priced cancer lately?” Joel may be blunt, but he makes a very good point. In the long run, cheap food might not actually be quite as cheap as we think.

David Maren is one of the founding farmers who created Tendergrass Farms, an online grass fed meat shop that makes it easy for you to support family farmers – one order at a time. He lives with his wife, Ann, and daughters Ruby Joy and Anna Claire in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Please consider supporting Tendergrass Farms in their endeavor to sustain family farms by placing an order today at their online grass fed meats shop for grass fed beef, pastured pork, pastured chicken, or pastured turkey.

1According to data from this Washington State University report

2Some would give higher estimates. That estimate came from Robb Wolf.

3The Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps records of US food prices over time in their Consumer Price Index. To calculate real prices I used their inflation calculator.

4The CIA has world obesity stats here.

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  1. Mind you, Grok’s mobile-phone / electricity / insurance / gas / Internet / laptop repair bill etc. was a lot lower.

    Whilst it’s true, some of these additional modern expenses aren’t strictly necessary (eg: Netflix subscription), others on the above list are necessary to allow us to work, to make that $15.59 per hour to pay for that cheap meal, so if that’s all factored-in, I wonder how similar we actually are.

    I bet he never did overtime though 🙂

    1. HAH! Funny you should mention that, I’m working overtime as I’m typing this. 😀 I’m working 16.5 hrs of overtime this week in total. It’s a good thing I like my job. 🙂

    2. The thing is if you look at the time period from 1980 to present it’s been on a pretty steady rate since then shifting slightly up and down. I’m not discrediting the fact it’s cheaper than people think to go primal, but it isn’t fair to compare the household income to 1919, nearly 100 years ago. When in fact, the last 30 years have been trending the same way since the post industrial food complex of the 1950s. We’ve been able to feed people more cheaply, but at what cost? I’d take higher rates if I could bypass GMOs, chemicals, and every other processed component I run into at the store.

      Nevertheless I’ve found shopping lately that I spend a lot less getting my greens, grass fed hamburger, and produce than I did on processed food. Not only that, but I eat EVERYTHING I buy with great success and don’t have little boxes or wasted produce anymore. It’s great! Plus I can get nearly all my shopping done at farmer’s market and just go to the store for butter and a few other “necessities.”

      Also, I’m a firm believer that while McDonald’s is cheap today, the price you pay for it tomorrow is far too high.

  2. What a great article and good points. I live in Alaska and even then food is not too expensive when I crunched the numbers. My biggest problem with spending too much money on food comes from NOT MENU PLANNING. Each week I have this intention and each week I fly by the seat of my pants. This means that some things might get wasted or that I have no idea what to make so I end up eating take out from the best options I can find. I have found that menu planning and menu plan following cut my grocery bill down by quite a bit.

    1. I try to keep track of what I have in my fridge when I make my grocery list (at top of the list: have pack of ground beef, cabbage, etc.) so that I don’t overbuy.

    2. Yes, if I don’t plan I end up with wasted food and un-balanced meals. I started keeping a food diary to make sure I am getting the nutrition I want, and to help with the planning. I shop at multiple places to get what I want at the best price.

    3. I find it easiest to have a week’s supply of protein and grab produce on my way home. I waste less this way (and I live in AK too! I find that produce does NOT last up here for more than a day or two). This post, however, has me feeling like I should make the farmer’s market more of a priority.

    4. Menu planning is a major issue in my household. I am sad to say that we throw out produce that we had every intention of incorporating into healthier meals each week. While I have seen menu planning as a great tool for using what we have I guess I never looked at it as a way to cut the grocery bill. It is logical now that you mention it.

    5. I have to confess my sins here. I am the world’s worst about buying great ingredients with no clear plan of how to prepare them and then letting them go bad. Or I have a wonderful plan all magnetized to the fridge to make “Primal Pizza” complete with the page number of the recipe book to use, but when push comes to shove in the evenings I’m just not in the mood to cook.

      Clearly, I need to get to the root of this problem and do some serious damage control so that we eat better for less. I’ve tried the Sunday cookup a la Melissa Joulwan’s fabulous Well Fed, but frequently can’t even stir up the cooking mojo to do that.

      I wish so badly that I lived close to one of the good primal restaurants so I could just order takeout! Can somebody just mail my meals to me?

      Don’t judge me.

    6. So many Alaskans in one post! 🙂 Go us! (Although I guess I’m not one anymore… 🙁 Dang graduate school in Texas.)

      Anyhow, I find meal planning ridiculously hard when I purchase 90% of my groceries from the farmer’s market. I NEVER know what’s going to be there when I arrive due to the various farmers, seasons, weather, etc. I’m usually coming up with meals on the fly while purchasing. And I HATE food waste, so unless it’s moldy and rotten, I’m still going to cook and eat it, even if that means a huge feast for my friends to clean out my fridge 😉

      When I do go to the grocery store, I ALWAYS have a list. Otherwise I end up purchasing a ton of stuff I hardly use because it was in front of me (or 5 different blocks of cheese… Just sayin’).

    7. leftover items toward the end of the week is how many soups and stews and one-pot meals got born.
      as for where to get the recipes, google and youtube are your friends.

  3. My grandparents cured the hams they ate. I was pretty young then, but I can still remember that they were delicious. Incidentally, you can still buy additive-free ham cured the old-fashioned way, but you have to search for them, and you can expect to pay a hefty price. We sometimes do this around the holidays and, believe me, you can really taste the difference.

  4. I think, unlike previous decades/centuries, we expect to eat more often, I eat when I’m hungry, period, some eat when hungry or bored or lonely…etc. I know my mother, grandmother etc ate when they were hungry AND when food was available. I expect food to be available when I’m hungry, therefore food has to be affordable in order for it to be available at my whim

    1. The modern SAD does not satiate well. Hence eating more cheap food. What we consider real food today, as in real food relative to his community, was “normal” food pre WWII.

      In reference to the article: Sadly comparing purchasing power over the past century requires more math than most people want to do but it is necessary. A quick and dirty method is to relate consumer products manufactured then and now via the Producer Price Index (PPI). PPI has inflation “baked into the cake” and dollars, i.e. purchasing power, can be readily compared.

  5. Huh, this is very interesting. However, personally, i’ve been told i need a class in spending less on food- way too much of current salary goes to buying the good stuff. i think im addicted to it:)

    1. ditto. and I’m starting a new job on monday, which I took a pay cut for so now I seriously need to stop spending so much on food!!

  6. I’ll add that what we spend our time on is equally as important as our money. Americans need to spend more money and time on what goes into their bodies and minds. Cheap, quick, or good. Pick 2? I’ll pick good twice thank you.

  7. Nice post! I admit, I am not willing to shell out for all organic produce. I simply cannot afford 2 dollars a bell pepper, 3 dollars a tomato, considering how many of the suckers my family consumes. I do prioritize clean meat, though. I get it from a local, grass-fed farmer and I buy some pretty expensive fish. So I’d say I might be paying what Grok did for my meals…

    1. Where do you find orgainc for 2 a pepper, 3 a tomato? That’s the price of regular at my stores! (and why the backyard is now a garden lol)

  8. A huge portion of my earnings goes towards food, and I have zero problem with it. I don’t go out to eat, don’t own a 60″ TV, etc. I prepare everything I eat, and it’s the highlight of my day. Besides that’s all $$ going to something very tangible—ME.

  9. Having a husband that purchases meat in his job, he has a hard time purchasing meat at more than $6 a pound for home. With grass fed upwards of $12 a pound, he gets a little tyrannical if I suggest that we change – I’ve tried in the past. So when I shop I just choose the best cuts that I can and buy the organic veggies when I can since there are no labels with prices. 😉

  10. I agree that eating organic costs more money. However, when the nutrient value of commercially farmed fruits and vegetables can be upwards of 80% less than organic is there really any savings? How much are we spending on that must have cell phone data plan, the multi channel cable plan or the leather seats in the new car. Point is you’re not saving anything by not buying organic because you are not getting what you think you’re getting. What you are getting is typically toxic, putrifying, energetically dead non-food. Yum!

  11. I would say as a family of five living on a $15/hr job we spend about 25% of our income on food and it isn’t grass fed and organic. That stuff is so expensive it might as well be gold plated. Pre-recession our income was much greater. And no we aren’t lazy. All of our working age people in the family have been job hunting, some of us for over a year and not finding work.

    1. And that’s exactly why the government subsidizes food. High food prices are guaranteed civil unrest. Of course, if you’re primal, even non-organic vegetables are not much subsidized… no, they just encourage us to eat grains and corn.

      1. I don’t know if that’s why they waste their money on subsidies, but if it is then it’s not working. Supply and demand even with a distorted 1st world economy will make it so the distributors gain from farm subsidies by paying subsidized farmers less. But don’t worry… African farmers have no subsidies and can’t compete against 1st world subsidies and 1st world protectionist tariffs, so you can sleep easy knowing your grocery store isn’t “offshoring” any of their cereals to those greedy 3rd world Big Agra fat cats

      2. I guess the way it works is this:

        1. Government subsidies encourage Agri-business to produce as much wheat, corn, soy, etc. as possible (and makes GM grains seem like a good idea).

        2. Food manufacturers buy this cheap stuff and use ads to encourage us to buy/eat as much of their wheat-HFCS-veggie-oil products that they can.

        3. Farmers feed this cheap stuff to their animals which in turn are sold to fast food joints.

        4. We eat the processed and fast food and get sick.

        5. Our health care costs get out of control so we have to buy cheap food to afford our medication.

        Also, it takes a tremendous amount of water to grow these grains and our groundwater is getting depleted so we’re going to suffer from water shortages in the future.

        Sad. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

  12. Whenever I get a little frustrated about the amount of money we spend at the grub store each week, I remind myself about how much money we DON’t spend on doctors’ visits or meds. I’d say it’s money eminently well spent.

    1. Agreed.

      Food for thought: Investments are judged by the rate of return. What is the compounding rate or return on good health? What is the mariginal utility for good health?

      1. I don’t know but I have a feeling it appreciates in value exponentially as the product ages…

        1. Yes, we are like a fine, aged raw milk cheddar. Or a nice 50 year old Bordeaux.

  13. Since moving to a Paleo diet, my food bill has actually decreased even with buying organic and grass fed as much as it’s available. Only buy meat, fish, eggs, veg, and occasionally berries. No more wasting money on processed, packaged food, including condiments other than mustard. My splurge is occasionally some wine and vodka.

    1. I’ve had a very similar experience, Susan (except my indulgences are really good cheeses and organic dark chocolate).

      It took me a while to get over the “sticker shock” of pastured, organically-and humanely-raised animal foods. But ever since I started eating primal, I’ve been eating much smaller quantities of food. IF helps, but even before I started doing that I’d long since quit snacking, quit buying myself “treats” (candy, coffee drinks, pastries), and was no longer grabbing fast food or deli food at the supermarket because I didn’t feel like cooking. I spent an awful lot of money on that stuff, and once I quit and started doing all my own cooking, the cost of keeping myself fed dropped.

      I also eat a lot less because just about everything I eat these days actually *nourishes* me, as well as keeping me off the blood sugar roller coaster that kept me hungry and craving all the time.

      I don’t always buy organic produce, but I’ll willingly spend the money for organic animal foods. And I’ve found that I respect food more, and am thus far less likely to let it go to waste. I used to throw out a lot of food, shameful as that is, but it’s incredibly rare for me to do so now.

  14. I work at a specialty grocery store. People spend the bulk of their food income on frozen food, baked confections, and sometimes wine and beer. Those are big money makers for the store, and high pleasure, low nutrition items for the customer. Since they are low quality and low price, the customer buys more, and eats more.

    You could not afford to fill a shopping cart full of local organic food, nor could you eat it all before it spoiled, because you would get full faster and be satisfied for longer! You will make up for the higher price of local organic by eating less food daily.

    But you have to consciously decide to go Primal and skip the beer, the ice cream, the frozen pizza, and other prepared meals etc and eat meat, eggs, vegetables and fruits mostly; that you prepared yourself! A little chocolate and wine is okay, and you will never over spend on food with this model.

    I must spend a quarter of my very low (cashier) income on food. I buy that $12 burger of local organic beef at a local restaurant, and I say No Bread. A year ago I was at 1950s prices, now I am at Grok prices and have never been happier.

  15. Great guest article – thank you. We do live in a throw-away culture now. In the past you bought a suit that you expected would last a lifetime. Ditto a watch, your home, furniture, shoes, etc. Now everything is disposable and quickly obsolete or out of fashion.

    If we went back to the mindset of buying quality items that we keep for a longer time – a cashmere sweater, a pair of beautiful leather boots in a classic style, better quality furniture that will last – and stop the insane consumption and compulsive acquisition behavior rampant in our times, then we would be able to spend more on quality food for ourselves and our families. Not to mention stop spending so much time sport-shopping and more time outdoors – changing our value systems.

    1. Agreed.

      But with the majority of 20-30 year olds on this web site you’re talking to a wall. Common sense doesn’t kick in until later in life…and for most – never.

  16. When I was thinking of the cost, I thought, hey I spent $8 at Chick Fil A without batting an eye, why should I wince at $8 per lb on grass fed beef.

    1. Agree. Although one difference is the Chick Fil A sandwich is a finished good ready for immediate consumption. The grass fed beef requires more inputs: time, work, and energy before the finished good can be consumed. Value is subjective.

      1. Paleo Ron – only an avatar linking to Mises would bring up inflation, marginal utility, and subjective value in relation to price (food price here obviously) Love it. Grok On!!!

  17. It’s hard to spend more than $1.75 on a single meal when that’s all you can afford to do so. However, I don’t think this was specifically targeted for poor college students. Great article nonetheless.

    1. There are still some great options for college students, and with being primal you’ll have the added benefit of sleeping better, being less stressed, and feeling a little (for me, it was a LOT) sharper throughout the day. My personal favorites are sardines in olive oil, tuna, nuts and seeds, eggs, eggs, and more eggs, and whatever produce is on sale at the store (don’t buy a lot and shop often to save money and not waste anything). Even not buying grassfed, you’ll be better off with protein from the store than from anything you get in a drive thru.

      In my own experience, I know I had money to buy quality food, and used the “broke college kid” as an excuse to go to Taco Hell and CrackDonalds. In reality, I was spending too much money on booze and clothes and weekend trips with my friends. Once I made eating better a priority, I was able to afford the food my body needed and I stopped spending so much on all the other stuff. That is just me, though, looking back on my early college years. I just shake my head on the all the money I spent (wasted) on those disgusting energy drinks. Yuck.

      1. I’m already primal, so you don’t have to pitch it to me. I follow an 80/20 guideline. I don’t really touch grains anymore, unless I feel a desire on the weekend or a special occasion.

        And no, I’m a broke college kid. I’ve had $40 a week for food for the past month so far. I still make it work with my staples of chicken, broccoli, eggs, milk, and sweet potato. I wish I had money for grass fed anything for a daily basis, I really do. Maybe when I can get a decent job.

        1. You could see if there are any local farms. Sometimes farmers are willing to exchange manual labor for foods from the farm, it never hurts to ask! Even if it is just one day a month, that’s some tasty quality food that didn’t fit in the budget before.

    2. Look for odd meats like oxtails, liver, hearts etc. That’s cheap & good eating 🙂

  18. This is excellent! Bravo! I take so many supplements and this gives me the fuel I needed to say I would rather spend my money on good food versus pills to digest the garbage that is cheap! Much less support the local farmers I know so that hopefully someday we may revert back to at least some of the basics.

  19. Oh come on, when 90% of the people still eat SAD, is it really helpful to focus on fringe details like how was the meat raised? Sure, if you’re a fan of “organic” or other mass-media cattle manure please do eat it (I mean the organic stuff…), but for most people avoinding the wrong food TYPES will be quite sufficient to get the benefit of the keto/paleo/high-fat diet.

    1. That’s true. The differences between ketogenic* organic vs non-organic are slim, and mostly have to do with taste and environmental/animal treatment ethics. All you need to do is buy some, or buy more, O3/multivit. supplements. Or eat more fish, liver and eggs. Either way, the argument that CAFO meats have residual chemicals is a myth; I learned that by reading the website of an organic rancher that was apparently tired of hearing it – turns out thorough studies were done when American CAFO beef got exported to Europe.

      *ketogenic paleo… because that’s what I do and if you can get someone to do ketopaleo w/ IF for a month it shows their genuine desire to fend of the diseases of civilization, is probably healthier than anything else, and all other paleo variants are comparatively easy… /propaganda

    2. If you’re referring to just the immediate benefits to your individual health, you may have a point (although I have noticed substantial differences in my own body with the shift to higher quality meat/produce), although if you’re really eating the grok way and getting your fill of organ meats you’d be better off going grass-fed there and I personally think the quality of the fat you’re consuming also matters.

      If, however, you’re thinking about environmental health as a key contributor to your personal health, which it is, you might want to rethink your stance. I view a large part of the primal movement (especially as it differentiates from Paleo) as viewing ourselves as a part of the whole, reconnecting with our community and environment and natural roots to create a more richer life-experience, and this is, in my opinion, inextricably connected with the choices we make in our lives of what to support.

      I personally think the jump to higher quality food (though I loathe the label “organic” for how it’s been manipulated by the industry) is an essential one that needs to be better integrated into the conversation of diet and health. The choices we make do have far reaching impacts – to environmental quality, to producers that pay fair, living wages that allow farm-workers to access similar resources we’re able to, to creating humane living environments for the animals that feed us, and more importantly towards investing in the future of our planet. I think we need to stop thinking of our individual health as the ends and view it as a means to achieving a healthier world.

  20. Took my mother to a local farmers market recently. She was excited to see all the “beautiful” things available. I encouraged her to get some. She considered the peaches…until she saw the price and was shocked. I told her “well, they’re cheaper than doctors or cancer” (she had breast cancer). She thought about it for a minute and then she said “actually, no, my Medicare paid all of my cancer costs, so the cancer is cheaper.” WTF! I was so stunned I actually had no response. She would endure the surgery, chemo and radiation to not spend extra money for good food?? Maybe a generational thing? (she’s 74). She just wouldn’t do it or let me buy them for her. Sad. SAD.

    1. Ironically, those peaches won’t protect her from cancer, it will feed it instead so that was a bad argument to begin with. Cancers are addicted to alcohol, growth hormones and carbs; the most easily digestible & insulin-producing, the better.

      If you seriously want to help your mother tell her to go ketogenic and buy yourself Gary Taubes’ GCBC (read the cancer chapter) & Nick Lane’s Sex, Power, Suicide.

      Humans are the only multi-cellular organisms that can get killed by cancer. That means even a toe fungus is better at being a multi-cellular organism that we are. THIS IS NOT NATURAL!

      1. Wut?
        Cancer is perfectly capable of killing other multicellular organism too, you know. Rats, cats and dogs just to name a few. There is probably a horse owner here that lost a four-legged friend to the big C and some cattle-farmers that can chip in.
        And in case someone starts to think it only happens to domesticated animals, that live an unnatural lifestyle: the wild Tasmanian devil population is at risk of dying out due to a transferrable cancer (1/3 gone in just 2 decades) and plants can get cancerous growths after being infected with bacteria like Agrobacterium tumerifaciens (yes, the 2nd part of its name means ‘ tumor-maker’).
        In case you forgot, plants are multicellular organism too.

    2. Sorry to say, this is the norm. Just like people still wanting to take Abilify with side effects that include…fill in your own blank…

  21. Why is our food REALLY cheaper now? Production shortcuts + subsidies. The producers are actually getting paid by the government (via the Farm Bill) to take whatever shortcuts allowed by law to get food to market faster and cheaper, but not better.

    Like medicine, farming/ranching is now a numbers game–go big or go home. The more land to produce with, and the more heads of cattle/heads of cabbage, the more subsidies flow their way. So how is medicine subsidized? Research grants from NIH.

  22. I read in some article somewhere that the Victorians spent upward of 30% of income on food (even though income was vastly lower than it is today). Today, we’re lucky to spend HALF of that! Yes, incomes are larger than Victorian times, but the quality of the food we’re buying has also dropped by half or more.

    1. I’d rather go broke buying the healthiest foods, than go broke by the U.S. healthcare system.

    2. Funny thing is, even before paleo i was spending between 30% to 50% of my income on food. Something about having to go soy free causes prices of any packaged goods to go up. Now that I’m on paleo, it’s still between 30 to 50%, but it’s more whole foods than packaged anymore.

  23. Personally, food shopping, cooking, and eating are all enjoyable for me; therefore, it makes sense to spend extra money on these activities. My woman and I go to the store every day and buy only what we will need to cook the food for that particular day. Its quite nice going to the store and thinking of what we’re going to cook up together, daily.

    We decided to live without Iphones and TVs and just spend the bulk of our income on good food and student loan payments.

    Rad article, super fun to read!


    1. Someday, when I am retired I guess, I plan on shopping almost every day for fresh ingredients and making a hobby out of cooking great food. I envy you!

  24. I very much view food as preventitive maintenance costs paid up front. I’d rather pay a little bit more to eat healthfully now than pay a lot more to deal with heart, digestive, etc., issues later in life.

    I focus mostly on clean proteins and fats, and I wash my fruits and veggies. As others said, I can’t justify paying $2 for an avocado with an “organic” sticker on it, but there are good clean/dirty lists out there that talk about what to buy organic and what not.

  25. The thing people don’t seem to think about when talking about not being able to afford good food is that if you eat the good food in a paleo lifestyle you tend to eat less overall so you probably will not spend more overall. ie. That bag of chips and pop between lunch and supper and that beer and pretezels in the evening are adding a lot of expense.

  26. Sorry, but I have to comment on this post. While all this is well and good, and some of us can AFFORD to eat well, lots of people just cannot. They don’t make enough money to cover all their bills and expenses and then the food quality suffers. Eating well costs money period. In defense of modern food, without it we cannot feed this world’s population. Sorry, but we cannot feed the world on local, organic food. There is not enough LAND left to support these farmers even if more people wanted to take up farming as a profession.
    Also, thanks for the offer on products from your farm but you are out of stock on so much that I could not make it to $199.00!!

    1. So we meet again, Nietzchean slave morality concern troll.
      Paleo is a choice, no one is forcing you to do it if you feel you can’t.
      Also, if all farmers gradually stopped farming cheap low-nutrition, low-protein plant foods and raised dairy herds, grazers and chickens to feed the poor, there would be less people around but even the poorest poor would be healthy, as “peasant” food would mean cheap cheeses, eggs, easily harvested fish & low-quality sausage meats as opposed to potatoes, corn, rice & wheat.
      People would not just drop dead instantly; they’d simply not get born as poor peasants usually stop having children when they can’t feed them, whether they are living off goat milk, wildcaught fish, eggs & mystery meat or the current high-carb, low-protein disease-causing staples of wheat, wheat, wheat, corn and potatoes.
      The only problem with this is some genius would eventually figure out making a potato farm would allow him to have more food with less land and thus have more kids and a comparative advantage to his neighbours… thus ensuring that we once again end up with a bunch of poor 3rd world city dwellers barely surviving on garbage foods.

    2. Getting over $200 wasn’t difficult. The site was very user friendly and nothing I wanted was out of stock. Excited to receive my order! Thanks for putting this together on your site for us Mark!

  27. Wow Mark– pretty involved post today! Thank God I live in Tennessee where we can remain primal by eating all the roadkill — which is pretty inexpensive as long as it’s fresh and not killed by my own vehicle. Of course, you have to watch out for all the cars when dining!

  28. It’s a question of value over price. You can compete in products by value (perceived benefits by the consumer) or low cost. For us, we value good food.
    This is the real issue, most people don’t recognise the true value (or benefits) of real food. They’ll spend more to get a designer handbag or the latest phone but baulk at an extra dollar for an apple.

    1. While this may be true of some people, not everyone can afford the high prices of grass fed meats and organic veggies. I don’t really get every ones attitude, sometimes it can be a turn off for people to even want to try paleo/primal. People should start off with what they can afford to buy and not be pressured to buy the absolute best when it’s not in their budget. A lot of familys can’t cut anymore from their budget to allow for the higher prices of grassfed/organic. Shouldn’t we encourage them to try switching to just eating fruits/veg/meats/fish/chicken and get rid of the processed crap? Hell, in my opinion that’s a big step!

      1. Well Hell Sister– you have a point about eating primal if not organic. I once passed up a Whole Foods chicken that was a whopping 14 bucks and would barely feed me and my wife, for about 14 dollars worth of chicken that had no added hormones or solution– and we ate about 6 meals!

        However, if you truly cut out the crap– pretzels, soda, empty calories, grains (bread ain’t cheap) you probably could afford to eat more organic and much more naturally.

        Wait– the oven timer went off- I hear my roadkill rabbit is ready. Told the wife not to make rabbit soup–no one like to find a hare in their soup.

        1. Is there really much left of the poor rabbit after being smooshed by that tractor trailer? Rabbit stew is one of my favorite meals.

  29. I live in Alaska, and only wish I could pay 6.8% of my income on groceries. I spend about twice that amount. I could eat cheap if I ate SAD crud, but to eat primal it’s expensive. And most of the meat I consumer is still CAFO. As a point of reference, standard ground beef is a little more than $6 pound. The prices go up on CAFO beef from there, based on cut. The pricing for grass fed free range is about 40% to 100% more. What helps is we do supplement with wild Alaska salmon. And I’ve been hoping my SO will start hunting again.

  30. And that’s the reason why I have an agreement with some local farmers.

    They save all the internal organs (some of them would be thrown away like chicken stomachs, feet, beef spleen, tail, cheeks, mouton brain, liver, pork’s tongue, etc). I pay almost nothing and have nutritious grass fed beef/sheep and free-range chicken organs.

    Sometimes I still have my filet and ossobuco, but I am so used to offal now that I start wondering which of the two is the real treat 😉

      1. Sure, coming soon.
        I am preparing the texts and the pictures already.

  31. Interesting article.
    It’s funny that my lunch, in comparison to my co-worker’s lunch, is smaller and fills me up. Her lunch is huge, filled with grains and she seems as though she’s hungry all the time. Plus, she runs marathons but still has what she calls too much body fat, a little roll around the middle. No thanks, I’ll take my grain free lunch any day and NO hunger until the next meal time.
    It seems that I eat less now, as a primal eater, than I did when I ate small amounts of grains before. Maybe my food bill went down as a result?

  32. I sometimes struggle with this…paychecks fluctuate for me because I am in sales…so, sometimes finances can get tight and I buy the $2.69lb ground beef from Trader Joes and the $1.99 eggs and cheap bacon….I can tell you, when I buy my 100% GF beef from our local creamery, Traders Point, and buy the pastured bacon and good eggs…dude, my family can tell a huge difference…so, to spend an extra few bucks and know that its benifiting me and my family healthwise, eating high quality food and helping local farmers and economy, its way better for us all

    1. Yes, it’s amazing how much different grass fed meat smells and tastes! It’s a completely different food.

      I feel the same way about the veggies I grow in my garden–the taste is incomparable to store bought, my own lettuce has real flavor and depth, and we can easily tell the difference between store bought cardboard tomatoes and the real ones.

      It’s sad really, how much the palate has been numbed by frankenfoods.

  33. If you wanna eat crappy burgers at exorbitant prices paired with bad service, come to Australia…

  34. … The scientific logic in this one was flawed. I understand that “you get what you pay for”, but price does not effect quality nor does it effect nutrition; it is the exact opposite: Quality effects price and nutrition. The firms compete for prices (like you said), so in order to cut production costs, they make a lower quality product because it’s cheaper for them to produce. In doing so, the quality goes down and the price goes down. Price effects nothing.

    1. You’ve got your “affects” mixed up with your “effects”.

  35. I’ve kept track of food costs for over six months and I’m feeding people (I cook for a lot of different people) for about $3.50 per person per meal. That’s for everything made from scratch. And as I love to cook, it’s a lot of fun too. Though my grocery bill is still large due to the number of people I cook for, often providing over 120 meals per month, for some big and hungry guys, I think $3.50 is a pretty good deal for a meal made of real food.

    If you have room to store it, buy in bulk things you know you will use if they are items that can be stored for a long time. I do grow a lot of stuff on our tiny deck, buy cases of things when they are in season and therefore cheeper (and better!) and can, freeze, or dry them myself. I don’t buy 100% organic and grassfed, but we usually have wild game around to eat.

  36. I try to buy seasonal, local and sustainably grown produce over organic… don’t forget, a lot of the smaller producers can’t afford the organic certification, but are still growing excellent quality food. And I would much rather buy local food at it’s peak of freshness than stuff that is technically organic but grown on a HUGE farm miles away and shipped to the grocery store while underripe and then artificially ripened..
    It tends to taste better and I am sure it has a higher nutritional value than produce that is picked early and chilled on its way to the market simply because it has more time to build up those nutrients..
    Don’t just assume that because it is for sale at a farmers market that it is local either… or even that it is grown by the person selling it! The Calgary Farmers market has one stall that sells produce grown in the US and Mexico, not even in Canada, much less Alberta… You have to ask questions!

  37. I feel extremely lucky that there is a well organized farmer’s market within a 30 minute drive of my house that accepts EFT debit for tokens as well as has a grant program in place that will give EFT users tokens (half of their EFT debit amount) specifically for fruits and vegetables. Yes, its far for people who don’t have a car, or public transportation. However, if they could get to a farmer’s market, that would be the one to get to.
    That being said…things like CSA programs (either produce or meat) can help with managing costs. For me and my daughter, a produce CSA isn’t really helpful. I would need 1/4 of a normal share, or to split it with someone. My favorite thing this year has been the CSA that I belong to that is a meat farm. I get beef, lamb, chicken and pork in various cuts once a month. I still buy eggs (at a discount) and I supplement with breakfast meats (nitrate-free bacon and breakfast sausage from the same farm). I will still have meat into at least part of the winter. The nice part is the investment in a farm that raises the animals humanely and also getting to know the people who are working to raise your food. The market itself is my grocery store, and they also run a winter market indoors through the Ohio winter. I dislike going to standard grocery stores at this point, even though I have to for a few items.
    I definitely feel it is worth it to pay “extra” compared to grocery store items to buy directly from farmers a product that has been raised closer to the way my great-grandparents would have purchased or raised their produce and meat.

  38. The lard consumption graph is crazy! I must of been the reason for the large uptick in the 2000’s. Joking!

  39. This is an awesome article, and I really enjoyed it. However, there’s a part of it that’s a bit delusional, although I suppose it’s really directed at this audience.

    “Do you really need two iPads? Would you be better off going on another vacation this year or staying home and spending that extra 5% of your salary on food that makes you feel good?”

    Most of the people on my street live on welfare and can’t afford A/C. More than half the jobs in the U.S. pay less than $30,000 a year, and they are exhausting manual labor or–on your feet all day– jobs. Income inequality in our country is a very real thing, and it is growing at a fast rate, especially with recent political moves to curb or destroy unions, cut govn’t jobs by more than 20% (which I might add are the few remaining middle class jobs left in which a lower class individual can be hired and work their way to the top, and that’s why they are being attacked)

    We also know that women living in poverty have more children, which only feeds the system of inequality. I don’t have an ipad or even anything close, my computer is about 10 years old and slow as molasses, and there is no way that I could afford to shop at TenderGrass Farms. I spend a large portion of my income on food, but if I had kids, I can assure you I would be eating mac and cheese for 3 meals a day.

    We are never going to win this fight over our food if we are only targeting the people in this group. Cheap manufactured food will continue to dominate this country because most of the residents live in poverty and have no other choice.

    1. I agree… I actually really do agree with this article, and was just ranting with my husband the other night about throughout human history, we spent a majority of our time working (in so many variable ways.. both for money and doing things like farming, hunting, gathering, whatever!) for food. And now we spend most of our time working for “stuff” and food is one of the first, if not THE first, thing to get the axe in our finances.

      But– and despite reading for the last year, I guess that I am not the main audience for these blogs. Two ipads? A vacation? I make less than $20k/year and I work 70+ hours a week in a skilled trade. I have cut everything I can (no TV, a single simple phone line, no driving unless necessary, my computer is quite old too, no new gadgets, STUFF, etc). I only have internet because I need it for work. I work hard and grow as many veggies as I can in my climate (zone 4), I keep chickens and am rewarded with wonderful eggs, and I still struggle. I rarely visit the grocery store.. most of my food comes directly from the farmer, or hunting (I hunt). Despite all this, I do sometimes go up to the kitchen and I get nervous when I am running low on foodstuff. Sometimes I’m not sure when I can afford more. I have to sort of laugh to myself when I see some primal recipes as the ingredients are exotic and well out of my price point– I was lucky, for example, to get a gift of some coconut oil for cooking from a relative that is not so rural as I am. I still eat in a “primal” way despite all of this. I truly believe that how we choose to eat has the biggest impact on our health and the environment– but it is financially extremely stressful sometimes! This is my reality and I am not complaining, but like you, I just had to comment on the “two ipads / vacation” part of this article. Is it really fair to assume the bulk of your readership has this level of expendable income?

      Sometimes I think of my days in true poverty .. the $0.10/package ramen noodles and the scavenging of free crackers at salad bars. That is a reality for a lot of people. No doubt it leads to health problems, which are more expensive in the long run, but truly if you had asked me at the time if I wanted to eat that day or if I’d rather face health issues later in life, I would have wanted to eat. Thank goodness I am no longer in that situation, but I am fortunate. A lot of people still are.

      I want to emphasize that I DO agree with this article, but please understand that you are addressing people that are trying to eat healthy, responsible diets that come from nearly every financial background, when making flippant comments and assumptions on income. I truly wish that more of us were making the average incomes that you quoted.

  40. Wow! Of all the things you have ever written, that was the most Inspirational thing yet. Being from Canada it is very tricky to eat well. But I have found with a little bit of time and research it can be done. We have things here that still grow in the wild. Like fiddleheads, berries, and some fish we can still fish some fish for free. Like I said,”Time and research”. I found and farm that feeds their animal grass in the summer. I grow my own veggies and freeze them for winter. People ask me all the time, “Why don’t you just go to the supermarket, it’s easier”. I used to go on about it. Not anymore. Now I just say, Oh just because. I wonder when people will start to understand. To all those Groks out there. Solder on. We are looking at you from the North. And yes our bacon is still as good as ever.

  41. IMHO, it is pay now or pay later.
    It is just a matter of priorities.
    Do you want to feel good and live a longer disease free life? -or- Do you prefer the alternatives? Cancer, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, etc…
    It would have been interesting to see declining food costs over the last century compared with rising health costs.

  42. Pretty solid economic analysis. But we must remember that correlation is not causation.

    Oh, and if you have a back yard, you can raise a lot of chickens for $7.50 a week.

  43. Is today’s food really cheaper when you factor in all the subsidies our taxes pay? Not to mention all the tax breaks those big food corporations get?

  44. We may have higher rates of obesity and diabetes but it’s an interesting comparison that Japanese spend more for better food yet have higher rates of stomach cancer.

    Albeit their overall life expectancy is a few years longer than ours. So that begs the question, is it worth it to live only a few years longer?

  45. With regard to the Salatin quote: unfortunately, treating cancer is free for most people, because treatment is paid for by the government or by employer paid health insurance.

    If everyone paid for their own health care, I think we’d see a lot more emphasis on eating healthy.

  46. It’s because people now spend more money on other crap today that wasn’t spent in the past: overpriced cell phone contracts and other garbage. I know many people who buy, buy, buy, and buy but they don’t use any of it. I don’t have cell phone contract. I don’t pay for cable or satellite TV. I don’t buy all the useless electronic gadgets, or the cheap China made crap that lasts for a few weeks. I don’t drive either or waste money on useless health insurance. I commute by bicycle. A good fraction of my income goes to food, and I eat a lot. A grocery store cashier thought I was a gourmet cook. I know people who have got to have an iPhone, PS3, or whatever yet they’re regularly eating ramen noodles. Sure I like to buy gadgets and stuff, but get your priorities straight.

  47. One part of this analysis that is hardly touched upon is that the structure of production of farming is far different than it was 100 years ago.

    I do not mean the tools used to make the food, I am referring to the change in the regulatory climate concerning the production of food.

    Food is not really produced anymore with respect to honest profits and consumer desires. The USDA pushing certain nutritional choices on the country, combined with the numerous distortionary farm subsidies (crop insurance, subsidies for certain crops vs. others, tariffs on some crops instead of others, etc.) has wildly altered what food production would otherwise look like. The most recent farm bill for example had subsidies totaling in excess of half a trillion dollars over 10 years.

    Many of the industrial food processes which destroy the capital value of lands (in the form of runoff, soil depletion, etc.) are largely subsidized through the US government with respect to crop insurance for example. If farmers knew that the failure of their crops had the potential to actually wipe them out financially, they would do much to ensure that their processes were actually sustainable. There would be more investment in areas like biodiversity (finding cheaper better ways to do it) which would pay dividends in keeping their soils healthy.

    Before we start advocating going back to the way things were, why don’t we try getting the state out of our way first with respect to telling us what we should eat and subsidizing these unhealthy foods first.

  48. I think the high price thing is just a canard. You can obviously go to the expensive local markets and buy full price high end food and express your woe at having paid more for a primal basket of food.

    I go to Costco, where grass feds and organics don’t really cost much more than their factory counterparts. My local fru-fru market (think Whole Foods on a smaller scale) operates a budget market in the next town but which has about 60% of the same offerings in meats and produce at 2/3 the price. I shop sale flyers at the ~6 local markets. There is a meat buyers club in the area that raises grass fed meats and pastured eggs, portions and freezes them and sells for an average price of <$7/lb. There is another small business a few towns over that raises their own cattle, lamb, pork and duck and produces inexpensive charcuterie from them. And I cook simple foods from scratch that don't take much longer than cooking a frozen pizza.

    My son's public elementary school waps out 'pizza crunchers' and 'cheesy breadsticks' for lunch at an average cost of about $2.40 a meal. Its all mass produced factory food with cheap ingredients. We watched a show where in France a school lunch crew prepared pumpkin soup and white fish with couscous and a cream sauce for about $1.50 a serving. Every table had a big bowl of whole fruit. I've watched the local lunch crew produce the mass produced school lunch with four people. These folks made from-scratch lunch with three.

    My meals often cost <$2 per serving, although not always grass fed at that price point.