Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 10-August-2007, Vol 120 No 1259
Cheaper than chicken: protein foods ranked by supermarket prices
Background to our study—Food safety scientists in New Zealand have identified chicken meat (especially fresh chicken) as the main source of human infection with Campylobacter in New Zealand.1 Similarly, poultry is an important source of human infection in Europe,2 and consumption of fresh chicken meat the leading risk factor in Denmark.3 Campylobacter infection has been the most commonly reported notifiable disease in New Zealand for many years, and continues to increase.4,5,6
Consumers may wish to lower their risk of Campylobacter infection which currently estimated at around 1 in 35 per year (based on an estimate of 120,000 community cases per year6). Consuming frozen rather than fresh chicken is likely to reduce the risk.5 6 But since frozen chicken still has some Campylobacter contamination, consumers could also reduce overall chicken consumption. Given that chicken meat is a relatively low-cost protein food, it may be useful to identify protein foods which are cheaper than chicken.
Our study’s methods—The Woolworths Supermarket website7 provided data on the three categories of fresh (i.e. “chicken whole”, “chicken breast”, and “chicken kebabs”) and frozen (i.e. “chicken whole”, “chicken breast”, and “chicken nuggets”) chicken products with the most items listed. The cheapest fresh and frozen items by weight, within these six categories, were identified in a Wellington Woolworths store (on 21 July 2007).
To identify potential alternatives, we searched the New Zealand Food Composition Database8 to find food categories with items containing at least 10% protein (by weight). We then checked the in-store prices to identify the lowest cost items by weight. From all the selected lowest cost items we abstracted the protein and saturated fat levels from the product nutrition labels (on the packaging or bulk bin labels).
Results—The results indicate that 10 categories of food had at least one item that provided cheaper protein than the frozen chicken (Table 1). Two additional categories (e.g. including processed meats and seeds) provided cheaper protein than fresh chicken as well. Six of the 10 foods that provided cheaper protein than frozen chicken also had better ratios of protein to saturated fat (over 20 times better for the pulses and cereal items).
Discussion—This analysis was limited to one supermarket at one point in time. Also the range of chicken products examined was not the entire range (i.e. there were actually 572 products in the Woolworths online store that included the word “chicken”). A more sophisticated analysis could also address the complex issue of the nature of the protein quality as plant protein is nutritionally inferior to animal protein (though this problem can be minimised by combining plant protein sources within the same meal e.g. combining pulses and grains).
Table 1. Cost of protein-containing foods (≥10%) relative to the cheapest identified frozen and fresh chicken meats, in order of ascending cost per 100 g of protein (for one NZ supermarket on a single day)
a Prices were those listed on the Woolworths website, or failing that an actual supermarket (with all prices ignoring “specials”); b Increased from “nil” on the packet to “0.1” to allow for the ratio calculation; c The next cheapest fresh red meat was sheep’s heart at $3.02 per 100 g of protein (i.e. also cheaper than the frozen chicken); d From the NZ Food Composition Database,8 since there was no data on the package or bulk bin label; e Based on the mid-point of the chicken weight range on the packet and adjusted for the estimated 28% of the weight which is bone (based on the US Department of Agriculture Database9). The protein and saturated fat levels are for the edible portion only; f These were comprised of 66% meat with the order of listed meat types being: lamb, beef, pork and chicken; g Including all canned red meats, fresh and frozen fish, soft cheeses, whey protein drinks, some canned vegetarian foods, and some types of muesli. BB – bulk bin.
The results are slightly biased in favour of the cost-effectiveness of protein from chicken since it is likely some chicken meat gets discarded with bones and other unused parts of the chicken (i.e. the US Department of Agriculture’s food nutrient database assumes that 49% of the weight of a whole chicken is “refuse” consisting of 28% bone, 14% skin and 7% separable fat9). Furthermore, we have not considered how chicken sometimes gets cooked relative to the other foods—e.g. with the addition of extra fats for frying.
Despite the study limitations, the availability of many protein sources that are cheaper than chicken (by weight), suggests that consumers can avoid chicken in their diet without cost or nutritional disadvantage. This is an important consideration for household food choices and national policy options. None of the selected alternative protein foods are implicated as major risk factors for Campylobacter in New Zealand (or for Salmonella infection as chicken is also sometimes contaminated with this organism in this country10). Most of the alternative foods are also less hazardous for saturated fat intake than chicken (per mass of protein obtained).
Some of the cheaper protein foods also have other nutritional advantages relative to chicken meat—e.g. for various micronutrients (especially the eggs, liver, milk, and nuts); beneficial fatty acids (the fish and nuts); and dietary fibre (the wholemeal bread, pulses, and cereals).
One study has reported better nutrient density scores for a range of foods in comparison with poultry meat (e.g. fish, organ meats, vegetables, and legumes).11 Nevertheless, there are concerns about some of these alternative protein foods in this analysis—the high levels of saturated fat and salt in some foods such as cheese; the mercury levels in some fish species; and the environmental sustainability of fish. Even so, chicken meat may be less sustainable than some other meats in New Zealand as up to 70% of chicken feed is imported.12
In summary, this relatively small study provides some preliminary guidance to consumers who want cheap protein foods but without the high risk of Campylobacter infection associated with consuming contaminated chicken meat.
Competing interests: There was no external funding for this work. One of the authors (NW) has had two previous research contracts with the NZ Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) in 2005 and another author (MB) has provided technical advice to the NZFSA.
Nick Wilson1, Carolyn Watts1, Osman Mansoor2, Gabrielle Jenkin1, Michael Baker1
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