I admit it, at times I’ve been a sucker for convenience products. Not as often these days but there’s always room for improvement. For example, I eschew bagged greens and vegetables, preferring to wash and prepare my own, make my own croutons and salad dressings and use vinegar and water to clean my ceramic tile floors. However, I dislike baking so I buy whole grain bread at the market. My most notable baking disaster occurred when I attempted to make a pie crust. After much huffing and puffing, kneading and flour-adding, the dough still stuck to the counter, the rolling pin and my hands. I finally grabbed the entire wad of dough in a fury and threw it up in the air in a mighty heave – where it stuck – to the ceiling. My baking days were over in that instant.
How do convenience products compare to homemade? As part of a research project sponsored by the Arizona Republic, Linda Vaughan, chair of Arizona State University’s Department of Nutrition, and student researchers purchased both raw ingredients and prepared foods to see how they stacked up. By comparing the extra cost of ready-to-eat food to the time it took to make the same thing from raw ingredients, they could determine what buyers are actually paying for the preparation.Vaughan’s group determined that the consumer was paying the equivalent of $80 per hour for the convenience of buying shredded cheese, $75 per hour for sliced gala apples, and nearly $50 per hour for pre-cut celery. Never mind the packaging that can’t be recycled.
The study also found that “convenient” doesn’t always mean “time-saving”. A frozen teriyaki dinner took 20 minutes to prepare while a teriyaki dinner made from scratch took 30 minutes to prepare. Vaughan also found that the quality of prepared meals was usually low and typically high in fat and sodium content. So the frozen teriyaki dinner tastes like oily, salty cardboard and is less nutritious. Sounds like a deal to save 10 minutes, no?
Convenience food goes one step further when “quick-cooking” morphs into “instant”. The author of The High Cost of Convenience Foods – Case 1 compares instant oatmeal packets to quick cooking oatmeal. Since the oatmeal cooks for the same amount of time, the convenience is that you don’t actually have to measure the oatmeal. You pay twice as much for this convenience. The High Cost of Convenience – Case 2 compares ravioli in a microwaveable bowl to its counterpart in the original can. Again, cooking time is the same but buying the ravioli in a microwaveable bowl saves you the trouble of getting a bowl out of your cupboard. For this luxury, you pay 70% more.
Nearly eighty cents of each dollar Americans spend for food goes to pay for marketing services – processing, packaging, transportation, storage, advertising, etc. All of these costs are associated with making our food convenient – getting it into the most convenient form and package, getting it to the most convenient location, at the most convenient time, and convincing us to buy it. So, we pay far more for the convenience of our food than we pay for the food itself. In fact, we pay more to those who “package and advertise” our food than we pay to the farmers who produce it. So by far the greatest part of the total cost of food is the cost of convenience. (John E. Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri)
Think about it the next time you reach for a food that comes prepackaged. What price are you paying for the convenience of having someone else pre-measure, pre-cut, pre-shred, pre-pour, pre-slice, or pre-season your food? Keep that $80 an hour you save in your own account. You’ll need it to pay your taxes.
Enjoy this post? Get more like it. Subscribe in a reader or by Email.