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How Much Do Fruits and Vegetables Cost?

USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) has estimated average costs for 153 fresh and processed foods, using data from Nielsen's 2008 Homescan panel to estimate average retail prices per pound (or, for juices, per pint). Households participating in Nielsen's Homescan panel keep a record of their food purchases at retail stores including quantities bought, amount of money paid, and date of purchase. Purchases at supermarkets, supercenters, convenience stores, drugstores, and other types of retail facilities are all included. Nielsen also provides sample weights for estimating what all households paid across the contiguous United States. In order to estimate the cost to consume each food, ERS researchers further adjusted retail quantities to account for removing inedible parts and cooking that occur prior to consumption. Costs to consume foods were then estimated per edible cup equivalent as defined in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The rising prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity has prompted various strategies to improve children's diet quality. ERS has examined the effect of replacing one energy-dense snack a day with a fruit or vegetable to determine the likely impact on both households' food budgets and children's caloric intakes. ERS estimated the price per portion for 20 snack items commonly consumed by children ages 6-13, including salty snacks, baked and sweet goods, and frozen treats. ERS also identified and priced 20 fruits and vegetables that are potential replacements for these snack foods.

This page contains documentation for the cost of fruits and vegetables as well as for the costs and caloric impact of snack substitutions:

Selecting foods to price

A wide variety of fruits and vegetables is available at retail stores across the Nation. ERS priced selected types of fruits and vegetables in various fresh and processed forms. For example, apples include fresh apples, dried apples, and applesauce. Apples are also priced in two juice forms: ready-to-drink and frozen concentrate that must be reconstituted at home.

Products identified for pricing are very specific products. The final selection of food products was determined in part by data constraints: ERS researchers could not price fresh produce sold on a "random weight" basis, such as whole, untrimmed heads of Romaine lettuce. Marketers usually do not prepackage untrimmed heads of Romaine lettuce, but sell the heads in loose form instead. Consumers can choose heads from a store display and place their selection in a plastic bag. Because the weight of the food item placed in the bag is not fixed, the term "random weight" describes this way of selling lettuce. Nielsen did not provide data on sales of individual random weight foods in 2008.

Even with certain data limitations, ERS was able to price many types of fruits and vegetables in at least one fresh form. For example, retailers sell Romaine hearts along with random-weight heads of Romaine lettuce. The hearts are generally sold in bags that include a manufacturer's or retailer's brand name along with a Universal Product Code (UPC, a type of bar code). Compared with an untrimmed head of Romaine lettuce, Romaine hearts require less washing/preparation and may also be more expensive.

Processed foods are priced by ERS in a similar manner as their fresh counterparts. Researchers identified processed foods that are as closely comparable in nutritional quality as possible to the same type of fruit or vegetable in fresh form. For that reason, ERS researchers excluded apple juice blended with other juices and banana chips made with oil. Some sweetened and flavored foods were included because excluding all sweetened or flavored foods would have overly restricted the selection. For example, ERS priced canned peaches packed in juice and in various types of syrup.

Estimating the price of buying selected foods at retail

The next step in ERS's price analysis was to estimate the average cost of foods at retail stores on a per-pound (or per-pint for juices) basis. To do so, the 2008 Homescan data was used to estimate total expenditures by U.S. households on each food item and the total quantities bought. Next, average retail costs were calculated as the ratio of total expenditures to total quantities. From the Nielsen data, it was estimated that households living in the contiguous United States spent $247.1 million on frozen concentrated orange juice, which could make 480.7 million pints. Thus, the average retail cost of frozen concentrated juice was estimated at 51 cents per pint ($247.1 million / 480.7 million pints).

To estimate total expenditures and quantities, ERS aggregated total purchases made by all households, in all seasons of the year, in all package sizes, and at all retail store formats. Nielsen's sample weights were applied to make the estimates representative of what all households across the contiguous United States paid in 2008.

Calculating aggregate quantities of foods purchased by households was more complicated than calculating aggregate household expenditures on each type of food. Fruits and vegetables are sold primarily by the pound or ounce. However, some items are priced on a "count basis," such as cantaloupes for $2.50 per melon. To convert these sales to a weight basis, ERS used the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 21 (SR). The SR estimates the weight of a medium cantaloupe at about 1,082 grams (roughly 2.4 pounds), including the weight of the rind and inedible cavity contents such as seeds.

Estimating the costs to consume fruits and vegetables

The final step in the analysis was to estimate the costs for consuming fruits and vegetables per edible cup equivalent as defined in the MyPyramid Equivalents Database, Version 2.0 (MPED). The MPED measures only the edible portion of a food item once it has been cooked or otherwise prepared for consumption. One pound of store-bought fresh pineapple yields 0.51 pounds of edible pineapple after the removal of the core, crown, and parings. For many fruits and vegetables, a 1-cup equivalent is equal to the weight of a full measuring cup of edible food. For example, a cup equivalent of cooked whole kernel corn weighs 164 grams whether from fresh, frozen, or canned product. On the other hand, it takes 2 edible cups of a raw, leafy vegetable, like spinach, to make a 1-cup equivalent, but only one-half cup of edible dried fruit to make the same.

Data on cooking yields, edible shares, and inedible shares (when available) of fruits and vegetables are from USDA's Standard Reference (SR) and Food Yields Summarized by Different Stages of Preparation (Handbook 102). If weight is lost in preparation, ERS defines a food's retail-equivalent weight as:

Retail-equivalent weight = weight of a cup equivalent / (1 - share lost)

where shares are expressed as fractions. For example, the SR reports that 10 percent of a fresh apple is inedible, while the MPED lists the weight of a 1-cup equivalent of raw apple with skin at 106 grams. To eat a 1-cup equivalent, households must therefore buy 106/0.9 = 117.78 grams of whole fresh apples. In contrast, if weight is gained in preparation, a food item's retail-equivalent weight is defined as:

Retail-equivalent weight = weight of a cup equivalent / (1 + share gained)

where shares are again expressed as fractions. USDA Handbook 102 reports that cooking dry beans increases their weight. The weight of the cooked product is approximately 240 percent of the weight of the dry beans prior to cooking. The MPED further lists the weight of a 1-cup equivalent of cooked pinto beans at 173 grams. Households must therefore buy 173/2.4 = 72.08 grams of dry pinto beans at a retail store to eat a 1-cup equivalent at home.

Because cup equivalent weights are in grams, it was necessary to convert earlier estimates of retail prices from a dollars-per-pound basis to a dollars-per-gram basis (by dividing by 453.59), and calculate the cost to eat a cup equivalent of a food item as:

Price per cup equivalent = (average retail price per gram) x (retail-equivalent weight in grams).

For more information, see How Much Do Fruits and Vegetables Cost?

Substituting fruits and vegetables for other snacks

ERS has examined the effect of replacing one energy-dense snack a day with a fruit or vegetable to determine the likely impact on both households' food budgets and children's caloric intakes. ERS researchers estimated the price per portion for 20 snack items commonly consumed by children ages 6-13, including salty chips and crackers, baked and sweet goods, and frozen treats.  ERS also identified and priced 20 fruits and vegetables that are potential replacements for these snack foods.

Using data from Nielsen's 2010 Homescan panel, ERS estimated average retail prices, following the same methodology used in estimating the retail prices and per cup equivalents for 153 fruits and vegetables (see How Much Do Fruits and Vegetables Cost?). For this comparison, however, a price "per portion" is estimated to approximate the actual cost of consuming each food based on current consumption patterns.  

Selecting snack foods to price

A wide variety of snack foods is available at retail stores across the Nation. ERS selected 20 snack foods from among the snacks that children 6-13 years of age reported eating in the 2005-08 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES).  In NHANES, participants report the types and quantities of foods that they eat over two non-consecutive days. The 20 selected snack foods are commonly consumed, require little or no preparation, and are available in grocery stores and other food retailers.  Most of these snacks are high in calories, added sugars, fat, and/or sodium, and can be considered less healthy relative to fruits and vegetables.

Twenty fruits and vegetables (both fresh and processed) were identified as possible replacements for snack foods. Some of these items, such as fresh apples and bananas, are already commonly consumed by children; others are not. For 12 of the 20 fruits and vegetables, children reported eating, on average, less than ½-cup equivalent (similar to a "serving" as defined in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and also similar to the size of many fruit cups sold in supermarkets for snacks and lunch boxes). It was particularly difficult to find vegetable options, as children tend to consume most vegetables infrequently and in small amounts. ERS researchers assumed that sweet potatoes (not commonly consumed by children) might be an acceptable alternative snack for children, as sweet potatoes are easy to microwave and have a sweet taste. Similar reasoning was used to complete the list of fruit and vegetable snacks.

Estimating the retail price of selected snack foods

The next step in ERS's price analysis was to estimate the average national price of selected snack foods at retail stores on a per-pound basis (or per count, for popsicles and bars) using the 2010 Nielsen Homescan data. Participating households use a scanner at home to record retail food purchases after shopping. These scanners record items purchased, quantities bought, amount of money paid, and date of purchase. Purchases at supermarkets, supercenters, club stores, convenience stores, drugstores, farmers' markets, and other types of retail facilities are all included.

The 2010 Homescan data provide limited information about random-weight foods such as loose apples and store-baked muffins. Thus, average retail prices are estimated only for foods such as prepackaged apples and muffins that are sold with a Universal Product Code (UPC), a type of bar code.  The 2010 Homescan data used for this analysis provided information on the purchases of 60,648 households in 2010. Sample weights were applied to derive nationally representative estimates of retail food purchases for all households across the contiguous United States in 2010.

National average retail prices are estimated by dividing total expenditures for each snack food by total quantities purchased. Total expenditures are calculated by aggregating data on all brands and package sizes for closely related products across all stores for an entire year. For example, "muffins" include small, medium, and large blueberry, cranberry, bran, and other sizes and flavors of muffins sold with a UPC. Similarly, "apples" include prepackaged bags of small and large Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Gala, Fuji, and others.  This methodology gives a greater weight to more frequently purchased varieties of a food product.

Calculating aggregate quantities of snack foods purchased by households required converting some quantities into pounds. For example, the Homescan data prices cantaloupes, watermelon, and frozen treats such as popsicles and bars on a "count basis," whereas ice-cream is priced per fluid ounce. To convert count data on cantaloupes to a weight basis, ERS used the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 24 (SR 24) to estimate the average weight of a medium cantaloupe at roughly 2.4 pounds, including the weight of the rind and inedible cavity contents. For watermelons, ERS used data from SR 24, USDA's Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies, Lycopene Content of Mini Watermelon Varieties Grown at Four Locations, and the relative shares of mini and other watermelons from the Homescan data, to estimate the average weight of a watermelon at about 16.7 pounds. ERS chose not to convert popsicles and bars from a count to a weight basis since a count seemed like a more reasonable consumption unit for popsicles and bars. For ice-cream, ERS used data from SR 24 showing that ½-cup of ice-cream weighed 66 grams (2.3 ounces), yielding a conversion factor of 1 fluid ounce = 0.58 ounces. 

Next, average retail prices were calculated as the ratio of total expenditures to total quantities. For example, ERS estimated that households living in the contiguous United States spent $620.8 million to purchase 627.4 million pounds of apples, yielding an average cost of $0.99 per pound ($620.8 million/627.4 million pounds).

Estimating the price of eating selected snack foods

Some retail food products, such as potato chips and cookies, can be eaten "as is." Other foods require the consumer to remove inedible parts or cook the food before eating, resulting in different edible and retail weights. The number of snacks in a pound of food also differs across foods. For example, a 16-ounce bag of potato chips might provide 16 snacks, whereas a pound of watermelon might provide 3 to 4 snacks after removing the inedible rind. Thus, comparing retail prices of snacks does not help consumers determine the impact on the food budget of buying a pound of watermelon (at $0.24/lb) instead of a pound of cookies (at $2.73/lb).            

To convert average retail prices to prices per edible ounce, ERS used the methodology described in How Much Do Fruits and Vegetables Cost? that accounts for inedible parts such as watermelon rind and cooking yields (weight lost in cooking a sweet potato or a frozen pizza). The data for making these adjustments are available in SR 24 and Food Yields summarized by different stages of preparation, Agriculture Handbook 102 (AH 102). In making these conversions, ERS defines a food's retail-equivalent weight as:

Retail-equivalent weight = (1/(1-inedible share))/(cooking yield)

According to the AH 102, a baked sweet potato weighs 78 percent of its raw weight and has an additional refuse of 22 percent upon removal of the skin. Thus, in order to consume one ounce of peeled, cooked sweet potatoes, a consumer would have to purchase 1/((1-0.22))/0.78 = 1.64 ounces of sweet potatoes at retail. Similarly, AH 102 shows that the cooking yield for a frozen pizza is 93 percent.  Thus, in order to consume one ounce of pizza (from frozen to cooked), a consumer would have to purchase (1/1/0.93) = 1.08 ounces of frozen pizza at retail.

After determining the price per edible ounce, it was necessary to determine the portion size to compare the cost of replacing snacks with fruits or vegetables. ERS decided to base portion sizes on current consumption patterns using average amounts consumed by children ages 6-13 in the 2005-08 NHANES.  Based on the assumption that younger children would consume smaller quantities and older children larger quantities, the analysis is limited to average amounts consumed by children ages 6-13 because differences in quantities consumed would affect the portion size, and therefore the cost per portion. 

To determine whether the average amounts consumed were reasonable, ERS compared them to common portion sizes. For fruits and vegetables, ERS used half-cup equivalents in USDA's Survey Foods, 2003-04, Food Surveys Research Group as the comparison, since this is similar to a serving in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  For 12 of the 20 fruits and vegetables, the average amount consumed was smaller than the half-cup equivalent, resulting in a low price per portion. Since it was assumed that consumers would replace a "less-healthy" snack with a "reasonable" amount of the fruit or vegetable, ERS used the half-cup equivalent as the portion size for the 12 fruits and vegetables consumed in small amounts (that is, whenever the ½-cup serving was larger than the average amount consumed). This would safeguard against underestimating the budgetary impact of replacing less-healthy snack foods with fruits and vegetables.  For other snacks, average amounts consumed were similar or larger than common portion sizes in the SR 24.

Estimating the cost of replacing a snack with a fruit or vegetable

Replacing each of the 20 snacks with one of the 20 fruits or vegetables yields 400 possible substitutions.  The cost impact of each substitution is illustrated in the table, "Substituting fruits and vegetables for other snacks-impact on food costs."  Negative numbers indicate that replacing a snack with a particular fruit or vegetable results in a higher food cost, based on portion size and average price per portion. For example, it would cost the household an additional 20 cents to replace a one-ounce portion of cookies with a 5.2-ounce portion of apples. On the other hand, the household would save 11 cents if the 5.2-ounce portion of apples replaced a 2.6-ounce portion of Danish. It is not surprising that some substitutions would cost more, while other substitutions would cost less. A household making each of the 400 possible substitutions would save a net total of $7.00 in food costs.

Estimating the caloric impact of replacing a snack with a fruit or vegetable

One of the potential benefits of replacing a calorie-dense snack with a fruit or vegetable is that it could reduce calories consumed.  Using estimated portion sizes and calorie information from SR 24, the table, "Substituting fruits and vegetables for other snacks-impact on caloric intake," illustrates the caloric impact associated with 400 possible snack substitutions. Because caloric content can differ considerably within a product category, the calorie impacts are based on more specific item definitions, such as a chocolate-chip soft cookie, canned peaches packed in light syrup, and so forth.  In most cases, replacing a snack with a fruit or vegetable reduces calories consumed.  For example, replacing a one-ounce portion of a chocolate-chip, soft cookie for a 5.2-ounce portion of apples would reduce caloric intake by 46 calories; replacing the 2.6-ounce fruit Danish with apples would reduce intake by 194 calories. Although some substitutions could save more calories than others, a child making each of the 400 possible substitutions would save an average of 126 calories per substitution. 

Last updated: Wednesday, September 18, 2013

For more information contact: Hayden Stewart and Elizabeth Frazão

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