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Lowdown on the high cost of shredded cheese

If you sign up for the Do Not Call registry, you probably think you've put a stop to telemarketing calls. Not necessarily.

Businesses can still phone if you are one of their customers, whether you're on the list or not. (The government's definition of a customer is anyone who has made a purchase or done business with a company in the last 18 months or made an application or inquiry within three months.) And your phone could be ringing a little more often in the near future.

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It may sound outrageous, but according to Linda Vaughan, chair of Arizona State University's department of nutrition, that's exactly what you're doing when you buy shredded cheese or pre-sliced apples. "When you choose convenience, it comes with a price," she says.

As part of a research project sponsored by the Arizona Republic, Vaughan 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. (For example, a pound of shredded cheddar cheese costs $10, while a pound block of cheddar cheese costs $6 and takes 1.5 minutes to grate by hand. So you're paying the equivalent of $4 for 1.5 minutes of work -- or $160 an hour.)

No surprises
Not surprisingly, the research suggested that consumers often pay a hefty premium for convenience, even though it's not always that convenient. Still, the costs vary widely, making some foods a better buy than others.

In addition to the high hourly costs for shredded cheese and pre-sliced apples, some convenience foods that you'll pay the biggest premiums for include sliced celery, at $49.02 per hour, and cheese sticks, at $43.33 per hour. Prepackaged meat and cheese lunches may take some of the work out of preparing a midday meal, but testers found it took less than three minutes to prepare a similar lunch without the extra convenience, and the extra cost worked out to be about $20 an hour.

That's not to say all convenience foods aren't worth the price. For example, packaged, precut broccoli is more expensive than a head of the vegetable, but the cost for precutting works out to just $1.80 an hour. For microwave pancakes you'll pay the equivalent of $2.97 an hour over the cost of regular pancake mix and $6 per hour for sliced, canned potatoes compared to raw ones. It also costs $6 an hour for the convenience of precut watermelon, and the premium for bagged lettuce works out to $13.47 an hour. Beef stew is a steal, since you'll pay just 12 cents an hour for the convenience of the pre-made product.

Negative convenience
One interesting finding was that "convenient" didn't always mean "time-saving."

"We bought a package of chicken teriyaki, which took us about 20 minutes to make, but making it from scratch only took about 30 minutes," says Vaughan. Remarkably, making homemade shrimp linguini was both faster and cheaper than the prepackaged version. In other words, buyers pay a premium for some convenience foods that turn out not to be any more convenient.

Vaughan notes there are factors that didn't work into their calculations. "Even if the convenience food is a little cheaper, the quality tends to be so much better in something that's homemade," she says. "You can usually get a similar product that's much higher in nutritional value, and it often doesn't take that much longer to make." Prepackaged meals are generally higher in fat and sodium than homemade meals, and testers tended to rate homemade food better in taste than its prepared counterpart. In favor of convenience foods, however, Vaughan notes the amount of time they used in their calculations didn't include the time it takes to buy the raw ingredients at the store or the time it might take to clean up.


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-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2004

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