Joanna Blythman: Cheap processed food comes at a high cost

It’s possible to eat well and ethically on a budget. By cutting down on processed foods like ready meals and bottled drinks, you can free up more money to buy organic produce.

Three ready meals in plastic packaging

The view that food ethics – vital issues like animal welfare, fair trade, the environment – is a minor cause for when times are good, one that can be ditched unceremoniously whenever money is tight, has never sat right with me. I have been told, usually by affluent people, that such considerations are no more than a precious middle-class affectation that most people can’t afford. ‘It’s all very well for you to tell people to buy free-range chicken, but if you’re poor you don’t have that option,’ they say.

I sometimes wonder if this ‘needs must’ defence is just an excuse to turn a blind eye to why cheap food is so cheap. At times in my life, I’ve been stony broke. I know that awful feeling of realising how little money you have for food until payday.

But I’ve never accepted that low-cost processed food is the solution. Applying what is termed ‘true cost accounting’ shows that ostensibly cheap food comes at a high price that’s ultimately unbearable for people, animals and the planet – the often-disgraceful conditions endured by workers in global food production, the suffering of factory-farmed animals, the environmental damage. To me, buying cheap food of this kind is like having an out-of-control credit card, accumulating a debt that we’ll have to face up to sooner rather than later. Before long, these problems will come back to haunt us.

I also challenge the idea that wholesome, healthy, equitably produced food is impossibly expensive – eating well cheaply is achievable. Finding resourceful ways to keep down your overall spend, yet still eat high-quality, ethically sound food, can be even be fun, although you may need to adjust how you shop and eat.

You could, for instance, stop buying prepared foods – things like sandwiches, ready meals, washed salads. Effectively, you’re paying a premium for convenience and packaging. If you leave these on the shelf, you’ll free up a surprising amount of cash to spend on food that’s much better value for money: eggs from free-range rather than caged hens, organic milk, Fairtrade chocolate, real cheese rather than processed cheese spread.

One simple way to slash food bills (and your environmental footprint) is to cut out sweet drinks and bottled water, and quench your thirst with tap water. Do this, and you’ll find yourself flush with money you never knew you had.

Plastic bottles without tops on

Instead of buying cheap, intensively reared meat products, you can cook secondary cuts, such as shin of beef or pork cheeks, from well-raised animals. The same logic applies to fish – lesser-known species are substantially cheaper than familiar ones like cod and tuna. And if you then cook a relatively small amount of meat or fish with lots of vegetables and pulses, you can bump up the plant food element in your diet alongside high-quality, nutritious protein, and still be quids in.

When money is tight, you really don’t need to abandon your ethical and progressive instincts and settle for the cheapest, and potentially nastiest food. There’s always an artful way to stick to your principles. 


Ways to save money on food yet stay ethical

• Don’t assume supermarkets are cheaper like-for-like – you can pay less at a greengrocer’s, fishmonger’s, butcher’s, or an Asian supermarket.

• Check out cheaper sources for foods you buy regularly. Organic veg and eggs from ‘box schemes’ can often be more cost effective.

• Cook more food from scratch. Highly processed convenience food seems cheap and saves time, but it’s usually poor value for money.

Read more articles by Joanna Blythman...

A sandwich is not a proper meal
Can no-death meat replace the real thing?
Enough with the supersized sweets
Stand up for British seasonal fruit and veg
Stop giving children choices at mealtimes
Will the coffee bubble ever burst?


Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.

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