Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Delusional dining

Healthy, fresh food more expensive than preservative-laden junk? Many people accept that as fact, but it's a long way from the truth

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Filling your grocery basket with frozen chicken fingers and potato chips? Oranges and green beans out of the question?

You're on a budget, so you have no choice but to omit fruits and vegetables and fill up on junk, say millions of North Americans who believe unhealthy foods cost less than nutritious foods.

Winnipeg Free Press readers are also buying into the myth.

"We can tell people to cut out refined carbs until the cows come home. If you are a family on a tight food budget it's difficult to do," says a Free Press website user known as Stacks and Ranges, who made the comment about a recent Healthy Living column on Gwyneth Paltrow's low-sugar diet.

Another Free Press website user, known as "part-time," echoed the sentiment when commenting on a story about heart disease. "You know, if the government really wants us to eat these 'healthy' foods like whole grains and fish then they should make them less expensive than the less-healthy alternatives," says the observer.

Winnipeg registered dietitian Gina Sunderland hears the same frustrated words from her clients. And she understands where their misconceptions come from.

"The price of produce does fluctuate throughout the year. People may see that a head of romaine lettuce is $2.99 for the head. They don't see that there will be very little waste with the lettuce and it will go along way," says Sunderland, who works for CancerCare Manitoba.

Another issue: Many consumers tend to place convenience ahead of nutritional and economical value.

Ready-to-eat options usually cost more, says Sunderland. She says Canadians need to invest a bit of thought into their food purchases in order to save big on money and health.

"Healthy eating doesn't have to be expensive," says the mother of two teenage boys. She often has to explain to her clients that consuming more protein, for example, doesn't have to empty their wallets.

"I ask them, can you afford the plain yogurt? Can you afford a dozen eggs?" says Sunderland, noting that such items are not only high in protein, but also easy on the wallet.

The Dietitians of Canada have declared March Nutrition Month. According to an Ipsos Reid poll conducted for the group, 63 per cent of Canadians struggle to make healthy food choices in the grocery store at least half the time when they shop.

To help clear up the confusion, Sunderland and the Free Press visited an Osborne Village grocer to compare the prices of foods high in nutrition to their (often more expensive and junkier) counterparts.

Here's what we found.

Romaine Lettuce ($2.49 for a 600 g head) vs. caesar salad kit ($3.99 for 215 g bag)

Dietitian's assessment: "We are already dollars ahead (from the packaged-salad kit), says Sunderland, noting that if people are savvy and they look for a larger head of lettuce, they can get even more for their dollar. Meanwhile, the salad kit contains 24 grams of fat.

"You can save yourself just a ton of fat and calories by topping (fresh romaine lettuce) with some fresh lemon or lime or opting for a low-calorie dressing. I usually make my own. A little squirt of balsamic vinegar, some fresh ground pepper and maybe a little bit of fresh Parmesan."

Plain one per cent yogurt (Two containers -- totalling 1.5 litres -- for $5) vs. premium ice cream (Three 500 ml tubs for $22.98)

Dietitian's assessment: "You want to look for something that's zero per cent milk fat if at all possible," says Sunderland, noting that the one per cent yogurt we found is still healthy, with only three grams of fat per serving and is a delicious substitute for ice cream. "I think yogurt is amazing. It's a great source of protein, a great source of calcium. Plain is the way to go. My kids will take a little bit of maple syrup or a little tiny bit of honey or a little bit of homemade strawberry or cherry jam and they'll add it to their yogurt." As for the ice cream? A half-cup serving contains 250 calories and 10 grams of fat. Most people could polish off the whole tub, which would yield 1,000 calories and 40 grams of saturated, artery-clogging fat. Another point for yogurt? New research suggests the fermented food can reduce colon cancer risk by reducing toxins in the gut, says Sunderland.

Frozen chicken nuggets ($6 for a 1 kg box) vs. whole roasting chicken ($9.68 for just over 1 kg)

Dietitian's assessment: Don't be fooled by the higher-priced whole chicken; you're definitely getting more for your money here. Five small frozen nuggets have 11 grams of fat and 200 calories and 20 per cent of your daily sodium. Not to mention the list of additives.

"You can't really call this chicken," says Sunderland, who reads ingredients, which include modified corn starch, modified, hydrogenated soybean oil, aluminum sulphate, xanthan gum and artificial flavours. "I give this one a thumbs down."

Meanwhile, the whole roasting chicken can feed a family of four. The leftovers can stretch the budget even further if used to make a soup, full of nutrients from veggies and bones. "I would put the carcass in a pot with some water, onions, carrots and celery and I would make a wonderful soup. And if I don't have time to make soup I would freeze the carcass," says Sunderland.

Bag of rolled oatmeal ($6 for a 2 kg bag -- 30 cents for a three-quarter cup bowl) vs. sweetened cereal ($10.49 for a 825 g box or $5.29 for a 275 g box)

Dietitian's assessment: Sunderland loves oatmeal, which provides a filling source of "fantastic, soluble, cholesterol-lowering fibre. Plus there isn't any added salt or sugar." She says rolled oats can be used for more than just cereal. "You can make healthy, oatmeal cookies. You can use it as a topping for fruit crisps."

Meanwhile, the cereal contains three teaspoons of sugar a serving and little fibre. "And how versatile is it?" asks Sunderland.

Have an interesting story you'd like Shamona to write about? Contact her at shamona.harnett@freepress.mb.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 D1

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