Diets heavier on plants are lighter on the wallet, study finds

Going vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian could reduce food costs by up to one-third in high-income countries, according to new research by Oxford University

Laura Brehaut 5 minute read November 11, 2021

A new global study by Oxford University shows vegan and vegetarian diets are the most affordable in high-income countries, and reduced food costs by up to one-third. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Perhaps because of their association with an ever-expanding array of products, including plant-based sausage links and strips of bacon with higher price tags than their pork counterparts, vegan and vegetarian diets are often perceived as being more expensive.

In countries such as Canada, however, going vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian could reduce food costs by up to one-third, according to new global research by Oxford University.

“We really have to move to greater adoption of healthy and sustainable diets if we want to preserve the environmental resources on this planet, and also to improve human health. Yet there are lots of obstacles that stand in the way,” says Dr. Marco Springmann, researcher on the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and author of the study, which was published in The Lancet Planetary Health.

Price is one such obstacle.

Previous studies have suggested that “healthy” diets rich in fruits and vegetables might be more expensive than “unhealthy” ones high in meats and refined grains, especially in high-income countries, he adds.

In order to understand the global and regional costs of eating more plant-based foods, the researchers compared seven “healthy and sustainable diets” to current eating patterns in 150 countries. The study found that in high-income countries, contrary to common perception, diets heavier on plants are lighter on the wallet.

Vegan and vegetarian diets incorporating fruits and vegetables, legumes and whole grains offered the most savings in upper-middle- to high-income countries (21–34 per cent reductions for vegan, depending on diet composition; 27–31 per cent for vegetarian). Flexitarianism — occasionally eating meat, poultry, fish and dairy, according to the planetary health diet — cut costs by 14 per cent.

“It’s really a no-brainer in high-income countries, if you just look at the cost of basic ingredients,” says Springmann, who was surprised by the magnitude of the savings.

Fish as a food group was one of the most expensive per calorie, the study found, which resulted in pescetarianism (similar to vegetarianism, except for the inclusion of seafood) increasing costs by two per cent when compared to current diets.

Flexitarian diet costs

In lower-income countries, the study found that adopting more plant-based diets could be as much as a quarter cheaper than the average Western diet, but at least a third more expensive than conventional eating patterns.

To determine the affordability of healthy and sustainable diets in the long-term, the researchers factored in various policy options. They found that socioeconomic development, reductions in food loss and waste, and fuller food prices, which include health care and climate change costs, could make these diets less expensive everywhere within the next decade.

“Rather than having (people in low-income countries) go towards Western diets, which are even more unhealthy and more unsustainable, and more pricey, it would make much more sense to go to diets that perform much better,” says Springmann. “So we were pleased to see that those healthy and sustainable diets had only half the increases in cost in low-income countries and became affordable with those food system changes put on top.”

Food-related health care and climate change costs could represent half of the total food cost by 2050, the researchers estimate.

A potential avenue for future study, Springmann adds, would be incorporating other external costs — such as air pollution and biodiversity loss — which are affected by food choices but not reflected in prices.

“There are so many factors that make our consumption decisions fairly suboptimal, because we just don’t see the price tag of those. And that really highlights the need for also progressive policy reforms that would integrate (external costs) in one form or another.”

While the research focused solely on whole foods — using a standardized list of global food items and an even larger list of regional food items from the World Bank’s International Comparison Program — Springmann sees investigating the cost of ingredients in prepared meals and other processed foods, such as meat replacements, as an intriguing follow-up.

In Canada, sales of vegetable protein products have increased by 31 per cent since 2020. This fall alone has seen the arrival of such high-profile products as Hooray Foods plant-based bacon, the pourable JUST Plant Egg and Beyond Breakfast Sausage Links. The nearly $300-million industry is only expected to expand, and could exceed $1 billion by 2025, according to Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, professor and senior director of Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab, who was not involved in the Oxford study.

“Just from anecdotal evidence, those are very expensive; often even more expensive than the product they replace. So you wouldn’t expect the kind of savings we found,” says Springmann.

“If you want a healthy and sustainable diet that is affordable, then go for unprocessed stuff and try to cook yourself. And chances are, those diets would be indeed healthier and more sustainable than if they included those heavily processed replacement products that very often also include things that don’t make them quite as healthy as the whole food, or quite as sustainable.”

According to the United Nations food agency, 45 million people are living with food insecurity around the world — an increase of three million in less than a year. In Canada, one in seven is estimated to have experienced food insecurity during the pandemic. When considering their findings on the affordability of plant-based diets, says Springmann, it’s important to keep in mind that availability needs to be guaranteed.

“That’s a thing that really is a job for policymakers everywhere. Nobody can have a healthy and sustainable diet if you can’t buy the ingredients at the market. And that’s an especially urgent question in low-income countries, but also in (remote or underserved) regions … in high-income countries.”

Though there’s a “tremendous need” for dietary shifts, Springmann adds, access to healthy and sustainable foods isn’t high on the policy agenda.

“Still very often food security is looked at from a calorie lens, whereas we know that it’s really not the total picture. Not that it’s not important, but what is more important for dietary health, for example — the absence of which contributes about a quarter of all premature deaths — is to look at the composition of diets. And I think this is something that policymakers everywhere need to be more aware of.”