While healthy foods and drinks have always been more expensive than their unhealthier counterparts, the size of the price gap between the two has increased by 28.6% in the past ten years, according to the new UK data.
Writing in PLOS ONE, the research team analysed existing government data on national food prices and nutrition content of over 90 foods and beverages from 2002 to 2012 – finding that while the average price of both unhealthy and healthy foods grew over the period, the increase has been greater for more healthy foods, making them progressively more expensive over time.
The UK-based research team warned that a trend that leads to healthier diets becoming more expensive could result in people increasingly turning to less healthy food choices – which could exacerbate social inequalities in health.
"The increase in the price difference between more and less healthy foods is a factor that may contribute towards growing food insecurity, increasing health inequalities, and a deterioration in the health of the population,” commented lead author Nicholas Jones from the University of Cambridge. "Food poverty and the rise of food banks have recently been an issue of public concern in the UK, but as well as making sure people don't go hungry it is also important that a healthy diet is affordable.”
"The finding shows that there could well be merit in public health bodies monitoring food prices in relation to nutrient content, hopefully taking into account a broader selection of foods than we were able to in this study," Jones added.
The UK-based team tracked the price of 94 key food and beverage items from 2002 to 2012. The 94 items studied were taken from the Office of National Statistics' Consumer Price Index 'basket': the list of items used to measure inflation in the UK. The items included in the study were those which remained in the 'basket' for every year of the decade analysed, said the team.
To match nationwide food prices to nutrient content for each of the foods, the team then combined datasets from the Consumer Price Index and from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS). This novel link allowed them to establish which foods were either ‘more’ or ‘less’ healthy using an objective assessment of the foods' nutrient content, as defined by the UK Food Standards Agency's (FSA) nutrient profiling model.
In 2002, 1000 kcal of more healthy foods cost an average of £5.65, compared to purchasing the same quantity of energy from less healthy food at £1.77. By 2012 this cost had changed to £7.49 for more healthy and £2.50 for less healthy foods.
According to these findings, the price gap between healthy and unhealthy food extended by 28.6% during this time – from £3.88 in 2002 to £4.99 in 2012.
Jones and his colleagues added that the finding that more healthy food is more expensive tallies with work from similar high income nations. They pointed to other studies indicating that the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) - which subsidises production of certain goods such as dairy, oil and sugar - has the potential to affect public health by influencing the availability and price of foods.
"To help achieve long-term improvements in eating habits, we need to address the high and rising prices of healthier foods, which is likely to be influenced by a number of factors including agricultural policy and production, food distribution, and retail pricing strategies," explained senior author Dr Pablo Monsivais.
"Additionally, there is growing evidence that targeted subsidies can promote healthy eating for people on low incomes."
The concluded by stating their hope that the findings may help inform such future policies and monitoring efforts.
Souce: PLOS ONE
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0109343
"The Growing Price Gap between More and Less Healthy Foods: Analysis of a Novel Longitudinal UK Dataset"
Authors: Nicholas R. V. Jones, Annalijn I. Conklin, Marc Suhrcke, Pablo Monsivais