The high cost of ethical eating

Is a vegan diet cheaper than one that includes animal foods? I recently read a comment on the internet about this—saying that a vegan saves $4,000 per year on food.

I don’t think so.

First of all, according to the USDA, food costs for a family of four following a “liberal” plan—that is, one that includes a fair number of higher-priced foods—are $954 per month. That comes out to $11,448 per year for a family of four, or $2,862 per year for an individual. So in order to save $4,000 on food—well, the grocery store would have to give you your food for free and then write you a check.

In fact—does a vegan diet save you any money at all? Obviously, it will if we eat the way we should. Replacing the meat, dairy and eggs in diets with lower cost foods like grains, beans and tofu isn’t just frugal, it’s much more healthful. Produce is expensive, but that shouldn’t be an omnivore versus vegan dietary issue. Everyone should be eating lots of fruits and vegetables.

But when we talk to people about how “easy” it is to go vegan and how much “fun” it is, we aren’t usually talking about soaking pinto beans. Because from the perspective of the average omnivore (not from your perspective, but from theirs), beans and rice are a poor substitute for steak. Pasta with plain marinara sauce can feel a little disappointing to someone who is expecting meat balls. And, while some of us may think it’s no big deal to soak beans, and we may enjoy cooking everything from scratch, it’s good to remember that convenience is a driving force behind most peoples’ food choices.

Beyond a doubt, one of the things that makes it easy to be vegan is that there are so many wonderful new vegan products on the market. They are delicious, healthful, and convenient. And they are expensive. Especially in comparison to animal foods like chicken, eggs, and milk. (These are always cheap sources of calories and protein thanks to the cruel and efficient practices of factory farming.)

You can eat a low cost vegan diet and it’s not very hard to do. Sticking with the basics, beans and rice, oatmeal, nut butters, fruits and vegetables produces a diet that is not only frugal, but just about the most healthful way you could possibly eat. But we can’t have it both ways. We can’t tell people that going vegan is easy and fun because of all the great new vegan convenience products and then tell them that they’ll save money by being vegan.

The only 100 percent effective and honest argument for veganism is based on ethics and animals. Trying to promote fringe benefits of veganism is almost always likely to backfire. Because let’s face it—most people will discover sooner rather than later that veggie burgers cost more than ground beef.

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30 Responses to The high cost of ethical eating

  1. Patrick January 20, 2010 at 3:14 pm #

    You're right about a convenience-driven vegan diet being more expensive. Thanks for bringing it up.

    "These (animal products) are always cheap sources of calories and protein thanks to the cruel and efficient practices of factory farming."

    If by "factory farming" you mean "corporate farms subsidy program" then I agree with you. It's a shame to see most people work so stridently towards a system that promotes poor health choices. Thanks for bringing up the subject.

  2. Chantal January 20, 2010 at 4:07 pm #

    I agree with you completely! And I found you points very well articulated. Even though all vegans should be striving for the same goal, I often am unconvinced by some arguments put forward. And I figured that if I, a vegan, am unconvinced… I remember seeing Food, Inc. with omni friends. Upon leaving the theater, there were a PETA member giving out leaflets. I was shocked that one of their arguments was that plant-based diets would make you loose weight. Needless to say that my friends were not won over.

  3. Meg January 20, 2010 at 7:39 pm #

    I expected going vegan to cost my husband and I more, but it really hasn't. And we've certainly had a lot of fun trying new things. It does depend on what you're eating. If you're buying stuff in boxes it's going to be more expensive. But if you're eating "real" food, then it doesn't have to be more expensive — and it doesn't have to be rice and beans, either.

    It's hard to compare apples to apples, but we're getting organic soy milk cheaper than we got organic cow milk and the faux meats we've had were less than we paid for meat before. However, we tended to buy pasture-fed meat, so it's not like we were buying the cheapest meat out there. But, why not use that for comparison? I think the quality of the faux meat we've had is superior in many ways to the cheapie hamburger meat some people get. So, why should that be what we compare it to?

    Also, eating out has mostly been cheaper. Getting a vegan pizza is usually a few bucks more, but the priciest vegan meal I've had was still less than a good steak dinner, and I find that Asian restaurants near where I live offer a lot of great veggie dishes at reasonable prices, even with stuff like seitan. The vegan treats we've had out were more expensive than if we bought the non-vegan versions at Walmart, but then they were freshly baked and made with organic ingredients by a real person. So, again, let's compare apples to apples.

    And of course, making stuff yourself helps a lot. I found that making uncheese was a lot easier and cheaper than making real cheese. Still want to try some seitan some time, too, and even some rice milk. That would definitely be easier and probably cheaper than making one's own meat and milk!

  4. Meg January 20, 2010 at 7:43 pm #

    @Chantal

    Sadly, that does win some people over, which is why they do it.

    But it's not without some basis. I've definitely found it easier to lose weight while eating vegan. And my husband has lost even more — enough that we have to make sure he eats enough calories. We both have more energy, too, and there are fewer temptations out there. So, it's no wonder to us that vegans are much less likely to be overweight or obese than omnis.

  5. SHIFTvegan January 20, 2010 at 7:53 pm #

    Nicely said, convenience and price are definitely the driving force behind most peoples eating choices. The sad thing is that food is so cheap and plentiful that people do not respect any of it.
    I am constantly amazed how far the recognition of veganism has come in such a short time frame. I would hope that the legitimate short and long health benefits of a plant based diet combined with the availability of basic vegan food stuffs will help more people consider the shift. But ultimately I hope more people find the peace of mind in knowing that you can easily live a life of compassion.

  6. Aisling January 21, 2010 at 3:26 am #

    I think that being vegan, vegetarian or omnivore eating healthilly is always more expensive and when you are vegan you tend to want to eat the very best available, I certainly do. I've been a long time vegetarian and recent vegan and find that a lot of meat alternatives are equal or sometimes cheaper than the animal products but being vegan for me means being aware and my choices go beyond the criteria of 'animal derived or not' to a better place of judgement – 'is this the best I can do for my body?' This is why I think it costs me more being a vegan. When I was a vegetarian I probably ate a lot more cheaply and forgave myself for buying processed grains and cheaper meat alternatives whereas now I'm making most of my meals from scratch and buying organic where economically feasible.

  7. beforewisdom January 21, 2010 at 4:14 am #

    In my experience eating cheaply isn't about eating omni vs eating vegan.

    Any diet can be cheap or expensive.

    It comes down to how much of your food you make yourself.

  8. WolfKenobi January 21, 2010 at 7:21 am #

    "So in order to save $4,000 on food—well, the grocery store would have to give you your food for free and then write you a check."

    Wait, so vegans made a claim that is not only false but factually impossible? Stop the presses!

    Great post, Ginny. I understand the urge to say anything and everything that seems to be pro-vegan, but what advocated need to realize is that people laugh us off (and make our ridiculousness the issue) when we lie, exaggerate, fantasize, etc.

    Again — brilliant post. Keep it up!

  9. Abby January 21, 2010 at 7:52 am #

    I agree that the ethical argument is the best one for veganism, but anything that makes people eschew animal products is fine by me.

    But I have to say I disagree with you about the high comparative cost of vegan convenience food vs. omni food. I do eat mostly grains, beans, & veggies but I incorporate convenience on a regular basis. I buy Sunshine burgers on sale & they wind up being about 75 cents each; you can't get a fast food burger for that price. And everyone is always complaining about the high cost of Daiya, but the same size bag of real shredded cheese is consistently a couple of cents higher.

    I suppose if frozen, prepared, vegan entrees were your entire diet you might not see a considerable cost savings. But I don't think the average vegan does this, and neither would an educated convert. Let's stop arguing amongst ourselves over the best and worst reasons to go vegan and just spread the good word (even if that means doing so with a Go Max Go candy bar).

  10. beforewisdom January 21, 2010 at 9:15 am #

    I think I have to disagree with Ginny.

    The cost of vegan convenience foods may be higher, but the medical costs after years of eating vegan substitutes is likely to be lower.

    We live in age of health care bankruptcies.

    Less incidence of Cancer. Fewer cardiovascular events.

  11. Meg January 21, 2010 at 9:48 am #

    @beforewisdom

    My medical costs were lower after just a few weeks! I was able to get off a couple meds and that has definitely saved me money.

    Of course, not everyone has the same results as I did, but it was still a very, very pleasant surprise for me.

  12. Ginny Messina January 21, 2010 at 5:41 pm #

    Thanks for the great comments on this post! I was really just trying to counter the idea that a vegan grocery bill is lower than an omnivore bill—nothing more or less than that.

    But what about those others types of savings related to going vegan—the ones regarding health care costs? Unfortunately, we don’t have a whole lot of data on that. There is no evidence that being vegan is more beneficial than other mostly plant-based healthy eating plans. Among younger adults, I don’t know if there is much evidence that vegans have lower health care costs. Even if we knew that vegans tend to have lower health care costs, we couldn’t promise any individual potential vegan that this would be true for them. It might, but it might not. That’s why more tangible, measurable and controllable things—like a weekly grocery bill—tend to be more meaningful to people.

    I agree that in a lot of ways, the more legitimate comparison might be between vegan meat/dairy analogues and higher quality animal foods like grass fed beef, organic dairy from small farms, etc. And, in fact, at my local co-op, the meat—all organic and “humanely and sustainably” produced—is actually slightly more expensive than the vegan products.

    But most people in the U.S and Canada are not eating those foods. They are eating cheap factory farmed foods. If they make grocery bill comparisons, it’s likely to be to those more conventional foods.

    My situation might be a little bit different from others because I live in a small town at the ends of the earth. But because this is where old hippies go to die, we at least have a reasonably good food co-op for a community of this size. If I want vegan marshmallows, though (and sometimes I do!), or Daiya cheese, or vegan milk chocolate bars, I have to order them online. A lot of people may have an easier time finding inexpensive vegan food than I do. But many people also live in places where they have very little access to vegan convenience foods (although I think that's becoming less and less true.)

    Again, my point wasn’t at all that it is expensive to be a vegan. Lots of vegans eat very frugally. But the fun and easy vegan diet that we often tout as part of our outreach can be more expensive than the way most omnivores eat. So I wouldn’t want to promise anyone otherwise.

    Here are some prices from my local grocery store for conventional animal items compared to the vegan fare at the food co-op.

    Soymilk: $1.50 per liter (just about a quart)
    Cow’s milk $2.25 per gallon or 56 cents/quart

    Vegan gourmet cheese: $7 per pound
    Grocery store cheddar cheese $6 per pound

    Yves veggie ground beef: $6 per pound
    Grocery store ground sirloin $4 per pound

    Tofurkey Beer Brat Sausages $5 per pound
    Grocery store fresh sausages: $3 per pound

    Gardein products: Ranged from $8 to $11/ per pound (and worth every penny!)
    Grocery store boneless chicken breasts: $3.50 per pound

    Vegenaise mayonnaise: $7.85 per quart
    Regular mayonnaise: $3.40 per quart

    Coconut Bliss nondairy dessert: $4.00 per pint
    Ice cream $3.50 for 1 ½ quarts or 58 cents per pint

  13. retaan January 22, 2010 at 2:48 am #

    The triple or more price per liter of soymilk has always puzzled me. Soy is extremely efficient to produce and the meat/milk industries use most of the soy produced.

    It seems like the process would be:

    soymilk: produce soybeans (cost 1) — process soybeans into the consumer product soymilk (cost 2)

    milk from cows: produce soybeans (cost 1) — process soybeans for eating by cows (cost 3) — "produce" cows (cost 4) — take milk from cows and process it into a consumer product (cost 5; big costs here compared to soy milk must be refridgeration and early expiration).

    What makes cost 2 three times higher than cost 3, 4 and 5 combined? Subsidies to animal industries? Scale? Something else?

    If anyone knows of a not too technical but still detailed breakdown of the economics here then please post a reference. Because I'm truly baffled by the difference.

  14. Michal January 24, 2010 at 5:25 am #

    Well said. But i agree with you, I dont believe that a vegan saves 4000 dollars on food per year. If that was the case wouldnt more people be open to this way of life if it could save that much.

    Vegan food (that is foods that are pre-packaged and processed) i have found are way more expensive and way worse for you too than a whole food. But like you said people like the convienence of having these processed staples in their fridge.

    Personally I believe that a whole foods vegan diet is the best possible way to nourish your body :)

  15. beforewisdom January 24, 2010 at 7:08 pm #

    Ground beef and chicken may be cheaper than faux ground beef prepared.

    However, you can go even cheaper by making your own faux meats with easy/convenient things like TVP and vital wheat gluten.

    Yes, those things require some preparation time, but people just don't open ground beef or chicken and eat those things directly out of the carton either.

    Not every omni lives off a diet of a 100% prepared foods. Those that do would also pay more for a healthy omni diet if they switched off.

  16. Meg January 25, 2010 at 8:01 am #

    I was wondering where that $4000 figure originally came from when I think I stumbled upon the "source" last night while reading Diet For a New America.

    "Economists Fields and Hur report:

    'A nationwide switch to a diet emphasizing whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables–plus limits on export of nonessential fatty foods–would save enough money to cut our imported oil requirements by over 60 percent. And, the supply of renewable energy, such as wood and hydroelectric, would increase 120 to 150 percent.'

    Extrapolating from these energy savings, these economists have analysed the impact such a diet-style switch would have on the economy. The impact they see is formidable.

    They see substantial increases in personal savings accruing from reduced expenditures for food, prescription drugs, medical care and insurance. And within a short time, they see even more personal savings accruing from savings on housing, energy, transportation and clothing. As a result, they say:

    'A typical household of three could expect to save $4,000 a year in the short run…' "

    In short, somebody played telephone with the facts. It's $4000 per average household of three, and only after a *nationwide* switch to a plant-based diet with limits on junk food.

    That sounds more realistic, if at the same time idealistic. But hey, we can dream, right?

  17. The Brekke January 27, 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    "These (animal products) are always cheap sources of calories and protein thanks to the cruel and efficient practices of factory farming."

    I don't disagree with you. Factry farming of animals is horrific. I am a vegetarian, myself. But, unless you buy fair trade and organic vegetables, you are also putting money into a system that is routinely raping and poisoning our environment. ANYTHING that is "big industry" is bad for the earth and for all of the creatures that live on it. If veganism is going to make claims about being an ethical way of eating, then is MUST support organic and fair trade farming equally to animal ethics, for as more people become vegetarian and vegan, there will be a higher demand for produce.

  18. BoopBoop January 27, 2010 at 5:04 pm #

    Just wanted to add that… "These (animal products) are always cheap sources of calories and protein thanks to the cruel and efficient practices of factory farming."… and generous government subsidies. It'd be great if we could put those subsidies into organic produce instead. That would benefit veg*ns and omnivores! :)

  19. Karen Namaste January 27, 2010 at 5:41 pm #

    Thanks Ginny for a great post. It is counter-productive to make blanket claims that can be disproved. The only real reason for a vegan diet is an ethical one. A year before I went vegan, I had serious health issues and picked up 20 kgs. Since being vegan for 3 years now, I have only lost 6 kg and and am still battling every month with the same health issues.

    In South Africa many health professionals still live in the dark ages and are convinced that veganism is the cause for all my problems.

    I am vegan because my perceptions of animals as persons will never allow me to kill animals for my own benefit. So the health and weight issues are not going to impact my vegan lifestyle.

    I also find a vegan diet very expensive as I am a lazy cook and like ready made food and takeaways often. I also now tend to buy more expensive veggies and fruit than I would have before as taste and quality are more important to me. With the added awareness of eating ethically, I now choose organic wherever possible which also adds to the cost. So no, eating ethically is definitely not cheaper.

    I see the added food cost as my donation to the momentum of veganism. Other people donate to charity, I donate to ethical, vegan food producers.

  20. Michelle January 28, 2010 at 6:30 am #

    Aisling, I agree with you 100%. A person could easily eat peanut butter and potato chips all day and call themselves vegan but I also feel that aside from the ethical reasons, health is also a huge part of a vegan lifestyle. We don't want to harm ourselves in an effort to save animals. By refusing to eat meat full of chemicals and anti-biotics for both the animals and ourselves, why would we then fill our bodies with cheap processed non-meat and non-dairy items? Vegan or not I think people need to wake up and realize that saving money now by buying cheap processed food means nothing if you don't live long enough to enjoy your savings.

  21. Ginny Messina January 28, 2010 at 12:16 pm #

    I agree that soymilk should be cheaper than cow’s milk. The cost of cow’s milk is definitely low due to scale; soymilk producers have to make more per quart because they are selling so much less. And certainly the subsidies help a lot. And while it’s great to see such a variety of nondairy milks on the market—almond, hemp, coconut, rice—I would imagine that this keeps costs a little bit higher since it keeps the scale of production lower for each one. But I also wonder if soymilk might not cost more simply because the people who buy it are willing to pay more.

    And Meg, thanks for the clarification on the numbers for money saved by vegans on grocery bills. I assumed that there was some actual data that evolved (erroneously) into the $4,000 claim, but didn’t know what it was.

    And I agree with others here about the importance of buying organic produce. But it’s also good to remember that overall, vegans “consume” fewer plants, since meat eaters are ultimately responsible for all the soy and grains eaten by food animals. So simply by going vegan, we decrease the pesticide burden on the planet—even if we eat conventionally-grown produce.

  22. VEGirl January 29, 2010 at 8:49 am #

    It's true that if you eat all the vegan convenience foods, you are going to have a huge food bill. It's also true that if you eat healthfully- beans, grains, veggies, fruits- it is much cheaper (though I don't think it's boring). But a couple thing to keep in mind when talking to a skeptical vegan:
    1. All those cheap (and cruel) animal products are USDA subsidized! They aren't paying the true cost of them- and if they did, they wouldn't be eating as much.

    2. There are amazing ways to prepare and combine all those "basics" of plant foods- things that will even amaze the omnivore.

    3. Of course a healthful, compassionate diet of beans, grains, veggies, fruit, etc. is going to look boring- to someone who only eat steaks, buttered lobster, and roast beef sandwiches (which is pretty spend at a restruant) But if they try it- I bet they will wind up feeling way better in their body and about themselves- and it will taste better, too. It's all a matter of giving time for your pallet to adjust to the taste of REAL foods.

    4. You don't have to go in only one direction. What I mean to say is that you can buy healthful plant foods and splurge/"supplement" with yummy and exciting convenience foods.

    For me, the ultimate reason for my veganism is the animals- but the healthfulness and feeling great parts are wonderful perks! And I do agree that the animal well-being is one of the most compelling reasons for people to go vegetarian/vegan. But I also think that the ways of eating should not be presented as boring- because food is something people are very attached to.

    Thanks for your insight,
    VEGirl- 13 year old vegan, environmentalist, and gluten-free girl

    vegirlblog.blogspot.com

  23. beforewisdom February 4, 2010 at 6:40 am #

    Here is a quote that belies the idea that a SAD diet is cheaper and that cooking is too inconvenient for most Americans.

    Few SAD options are as cheap (subsidized by government money) or convenient as a fast food burger.

    This quote is from an article about how Burger King is losing business due to sleazy marketing and a growing desire among younger people for healthier fast food options:

    From
    The Consumerist


    The 28-year-old Seattle man used to wolf down bacon cheeseburgers three or four nights a week at Burger King, Jack in the Box and local bars. But he and his fiancee started cutting back last year after both were laid off, then found jobs at lower pay.

    Now they cook at home using organic vegetables and dine out only on weekends. Mr. Rubin figures he is saving more than $100 a week by eating fewer burgers.

    "I don't think we'll go back to eating out as often as we used to," he says. "We always used to talk about eating at home more, and now that it's happened, we've found that we really enjoy it."

  24. Amanda February 6, 2010 at 3:39 pm #

    I agree with some of the previous comments.

    We could advocate the ethical arguments and say it's worth it to pay more. Or we could question our government's actions on subsidizing the least healthy, most unethical "foods," if you can call them that.

    I guess we should probably do both. There is no way I will stand by and let the government continue to do this indefinitely. Not without a fight. Remember… we ALL pay for cheap meat, even if we don't eat it. =/

  25. Lauren Reskin (Lolo) April 1, 2010 at 6:39 pm #

    "Anything in a box" will always cost more than fresh foods or stuff from the bulk bin.

    However, of late I've been more than happy to score a box of 16 of the large Boca vegan burgers at Costco for $9.99 (62 cents a piece).

    They've surprisingly got way more veg and organic fare at great prices – $3.99 for a huge box of baby spinach, $7.99 for a 3-pack of the organic vanilla Silk soymilk, etc. Clearly it's what people are asking for because they're stocking WAY more of that kind of stuff lately.

  26. Jim April 14, 2010 at 7:35 pm #

    I think eating vegan, particularly raw vegan can be cheaper than a the SAD (Standard American Diet) if you look at it from a nutrient density, health and wellness, and productivity perspective. We can go on and on about comparing individual food items, but being healthy and productive is priceless.

    James Reno
    Raw-Food-Repair.com

  27. natepolean February 10, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

     

    I'm not a vegetarian, but I agree that meat production and eating has a tremendous cost that is not apparent in the most consumers mind.When meat is too cheap and doesn’t reflect the true cost of its production, it encourages waste and overeating.  I don’t think we should condemn heavy meat eaters or price control meat because it’s not possible to legislate good behaviour.  I’m a true believer in the power of economics which really drives behaviour.  If we can just factor the true cost of meat into the price that we pay for, then people’s eating behavior would also adjust.     http://www.imperfecteconomy.com/?p=477

  28. Tia January 23, 2016 at 7:35 pm #

    I actually have saved money going vegan. Sure, at first I really relied on fake meat and cheese, but now I only buy that every once in a while. Usually the most expensive thing in my cart is cashews, and I only buy that when I am making a nut cheese. Granted I cook all home made meals, and generally stay away from packaged foods and for some people that a lot to take on but we have to because of a tight budget.

  29. Sunshine April 27, 2017 at 9:21 pm #

    You said:
    “Replacing the meat, dairy and eggs in diets with lower cost foods like grains, beans and tofu isn’t just frugal, it’s much more healthful.”
    Which is misleading. For starters, dairy and eggs are cheaper than many beans and grains, and tofu is also not that great from a nutritional perspective and also more expensive than some meats- at least in Australia this is true. Grains and beans are rarely more ‘healthful’ than eggs, meats and dairy. Most grains and beans contain little nutrients on their own e.g. rice, cous cous etc. Furthermore, vegans typically oppose GMOs (despite no evidence they cause ill-health) yet most soy and therefore tofu is GMO from the US (https://authoritynutrition.com/what-is-tofu/).
    The most expensive foods I see in shops are fresh produce, and vegan & organic (again, no proven benefits of organic over non-organic), so I’m not sure how one could claim they save money going vegan (unless you only ever bought high end meat cuts and super expensive brand name dairy etc). If anything, you will not change your food bill, as the expensive produce is still there, and the meats/dairy have been replaced with expensive meat equivalents and/or dietary supplements (e.g. B12).

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