The War on Value: Processed vs. Produce

Navigating the world of food can be something akin to being abandoned in a jungle.

Your participation is non-negotiable, the choices are endless, and often, it's a battle between what is convenient, and what will serve you in the long term. To say the least, the odds are stacked against fresh produce and cooking at home when pretty packaging and processed foods promise faster, easier and—the real kicker—cheaper results. But, the value of produce vs. that of processed is negotiable, and even misrepresented in grocery stores run on measuring value by pounds as opposed to servings. Check this out: Produce can be cheaper, with the addition of a little planning.

Shedding some light on servings vs. pounds
On the surface, it makes sense to believe that processed foods are indeed cheaper than fresh produce, especially when leveraging canned, frozen and dehydrated foods against the fresh stuff. But in reality, there's a catch. While the least expensive way of purchasing vegetables and fruits, for example, is in the form of canned food, what you actually get in terms of servings per unit is much less than it is with actual produce. The same is true when you compare frozen and dehydrated vegetables to produce. In a study conducted by the USDA, it was discovered that "For more than half of all vegetables, 11 out of 20, a serving was cheapest in fresh form. For most vegetables, from cabbage to mushrooms, fresh yields the highest number of servings per pound." Think of it this way: buying fresh makes for more bang for each buck, you've just got to plan for how you'll use the bang.

The art of the left over
The real optimization of value in your produce will inevitably come into play in the form of leftovers. Again, the game with produce is how many servings each pound of food that you buy is yielding. When it comes to processed favorites, the reality is that they are portioned to be a one-stop shop. With produce, you can extend that into a multi-stop shop. The value can be stretched strategically through the intentional planning of leftovers. When you're shopping for produce, plan to buy enough for the meals you'll be making, but also know that while these may be intended for dinner, you can cut costs by repurposing the leftovers for lunch, snacks and even breakfast.

Light at the end
Clean eating is not heading back to the 'good old days' of dissecting a whole chicken or buying a side of beef. It is a wonderful combination of using current offerings to make simply healthy food. Start with that boneless, skinless chicken breast and with a few spices you have a tasty main dish. Add a vegetable and a starch in close-to-nature form, and you have a meal. Getting started with this change might have seemed overwhelming. Then along came Mary Mentzer.

Mary witnessed the decline in home cooking and saw the impact processed foods were having on health. She also understood the hectic schedules of families and decided, "It's time for a change. The food we serve our kids today becomes their comfort food when they grow up. What do you want that to be?" She decided to create a way to help people take care of their health in an approachable, simple way. Mary went back to school and earned her certificate at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school and took the next 2 years to develop

The service itself provides the shopping list, the recipes (each of which are five ingredients or less) and helps you optimize your use to minimize waste, and it'll hold your hand the entire way through.

Value comparison: vs. Hamburger Helper
Let's run an example. Compare Hamburger Helper Cheeseburger Macaroni to Mary's Mac and Chili Cheese. The Hamburger Helper recipe uses milk, ground beef, and the contents of the Hamburger Helper box. Mary's recipe adds an onion, a spice blend and cheese, minus the hamburger help. For the price of $2.67 for the box of Hamburger Helper, the hamburger and milk (which totals around  $11.22 for four servings), you are also receiving the following ingredients:

Enriched Macaroni (wheat flour, niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), Corn Starch, Salt, Enriched Flour (wheat flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), Sugar, Ricotta Cheese* (whey, milkfat, lactic acid, salt), Tomato*, Monosodium Glutamate, Maltodextrin, Citric Acid, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Modified Corn Starch, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Paprika, Spice, Color (yellow lakes 5 & 6, yellows 5 & 6), Mono and Diglycerides, Cheddar Cheese* (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), Yeast Extract, Enzyme Modified Blue Cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), Cream, Whey, Enzyme Modified Cheddar Cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), Butter Oil, Nonfat Milk, Blue Cheese* (milk, salt, cheese cultures, enzymes), Sodium Caseinate, Silicon Dioxide (anticaking agent), Sodium Phosphate, Sodium Citrate, Calcium Caseinate, Enzymes.*Dried

Create Mary's similar version costs about $15.55, but that being said, as a chef you can extend the recipe by adjusting the number of servings you're creating into lunch for tomorrow and even the day after and use the remaining ingredients to do so. Thus, significantly more bang for fresh ingredients that you can pronounce. While Mary's recipe is more expensive for a one-off dinner, the value of the fresh ingredients and a little planning extend the recipe far beyond the bounds of what a quickie box of processed food can offer. If you run to the store later in the same week and pick up some more ground beef, you can do it all over again because its more than likely you have plenty of Mary's Secret Spices, cheese, milk and onion left over. That's the entire operation performed a second time for the price of 1 lb. of lean ground beef, around 6 dollars.

The value of produce beyond the dollar
The heart of the issue is that while you can't argue with the convenience of processed food in terms of time and process, you can argue that fresh food can be more financially responsible than processed food if you play it right. Ultimately, processed foods are not healthy. In a recent article posted on Summer Tomato, Darya Rose writes: "The so-called Diseases of Civilization including heart disease, hypertension, tooth decay, diabetes and some cancers were virtually non-existent before processed foods (usually flour and sugar) were introduced." Not only is this incentive to avoid processed food entirely, it is grounds to seriously commit to fresh food and to stop justifying processed food by citing its cheap prices. You don't have to understand nutritional science to know that your best bet is always to go fresh, regardless of all the endless ranting and raving about new discoveries within food. When it comes to the ins and outs of the ever-complex world of food choices, it's sometimes easy for processed foods to win the battle, but ultimately fresh produce always comes out on top in the war.  

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"How Much Do Americans Pay for Fruits and Vegetables." United States Department of Agricultural and Economic Research. Economic Research Service/USDA, Nov. 2001. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.

Rose, Darya. "Processed Food vs Real Food: Why Nutrition Science Is So Confusing (and What to Do about It)." Summer Tomato RSS. Summer Tomato, 01 Sept. 2015. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.