There’s no question that food is getting more expensive and eating up a greater share of people’s incomes. But a new study finds a disturbing trend while looking at rising food costs in the UK: The price of healthy foods, ranging from tomatoes and milk to salmon fillet and veggie burgers, has risen more quickly than the price of less healthy alternatives, such as bacon, pizza, doughnuts, and ice cream.
“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 vital that that a healthy diet is affordable,” said lead author Nicholas Jones, a researcher at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine.
Overall, food prices in the UK rose 35% between 2002 and 2012, according to the study, which was published today in the open-access journal PLoS One.
Over that decade, the average price of 1,000 calories of healthy food rose by £1.84 ($2.97 U.S. dollars), while the average price of 1,000 unhealthy calories food only rose by £0.73 ($1.18). By 2012, every 1,000 calories of unhealthy food was £2.50 (or $4 U.S.), whereas 1,000 calories of healthy items were on average three times more expensive, about £7.49 (or $12.20).
While the study didn’t examine the causes for the price disparities, Jones notes that other work suggests that there are a number of factors at work, ranging from agricultural policies that subsidize oil, sugars, and dairy to the kinds of in-store promotions favored by supermarkets. “Healthier foods are likely to be fresh foods which, being more perishable, may be more expensive to get to the consumer and may be more susceptible to the cost of other inputs, such as oil, rising,” he wrote to Co.Exist in an email.
The results have concerning implications for public health in the UK and beyond. In a 2013 survey, British consumers rated price as the most important factor influencing their choice of food products, with 39% of people saying price is the single most important factor. In the same survey, only 9% said a food’s healthiness was most important. The British government estimates the cost of diet-related ill health to the National Health Service has been £5.8 billion annually. In addition, similar trends have been seen in recent years high-income nations around the world, including the United States.
In the paper, the authors acknowledge that they only looked at a small slice of the food market and didn’t examine how prices might vary by region or by brand. The study analyzed existing government data for 94 foods and beverages that are tracked by the Consumer Price Index. Each was categorized as either “more healthy” or “less healthy” using a method developed by the UK Food Standards Agency.
Jones says it would “not be a great leap” for governments around the world to track these trends based on similar existing data sets. He believes governments should respond with policies to ensure people at all income levels can still afford to eat a healthy diet.