Fruits and vegetables are a bargain for consumers when measured by serving size, according to a new research report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

“Healthy foods are not necessarily more expensive than less healthy foods,” said Andrea Carlson, economist and co-author of the report, “Are Healthy Foods More Expensive? It Depends On How You Measure the Price.”

Carlson said in a May 16 teleconference the excuse that healthy food is too expensive doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

While the price-per-calorie for fruits and vegetables is typically more expensive than fat-laden or high-sugar foods, Carlson said consumers can’t use that measure to build their diet.

For example, a typical consumer could eat two or three 240-calorie doughnuts and not feel stuffed but one 105-calorie banana satisfies hunger more and provides better nutrition.

Carlson said the study examined the price of more than 4,000 foods based on three methods: price per calorie, price per edible pound and price for average amount eaten.

The foods were divided into fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, proteins and a “less healthy” food category.

Fruits and vegetables are more expensive when measured by price per calorie, but they are not as pricey as less-healthy foods using price-per-edible pound and price-per-average amount eaten.

The study also examined costs to consumers to meet the suggested 2010 dietary guidelines. Measured that way, vegetables are the most expensive one to meet, followed by protein, Carlson said. Meeting the recommendations for grains, dairy and fruit were less expensive.

“There is a lot of (food) in that vegetable recommendation; that’s what drives that cost,” she said.

In general, consumers can find a range of prices for both healthy and less healthy foods, and they need to be aware how prices are measured.

“We conclude that healthy foods are not necessarily more expensive than less healthy foods,” Carlson said during the teleconference.

Produce leaders said that message needs to be heard by consumers.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said PMA research shows consumers can eat recommended servings of fruits and vegetables for not much more than $2 per day.

“Every new research piece that comes out and says that healthful eating is not expensive is important, and it is important that the word gets out to people,” Means said. “It is important we keep talking about it because we are still hearing (that fruits and vegetables are too expensive) in the media.”

Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, commended the ERS study and said it confirms that fresh produce offers consumers value.

“It’s too easy for budget-conscious consumers, who might be just comparing retail prices with other food options, to forget about the real nutritional benefits and exceptional value of fresh produce,” according to a statement from Gilmer.