New research shows a widening gap between the price of healthy and not-so-healthy foods.
Equal access to healthy food is becoming more challenging each year. In the U.K., for instance, carbs have remained generally affordable during the past decade. Prices for healthy, nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, meanwhile, have noticeably risen.
According to a new study published by the journal PLOS One, a potentially dangerous disparity between the prices of healthy foods versus those that are less so may be growing. Between 2002 and 2012, starchy foods like bread, rice, and pasta were the only food group to not increase in price. Conversely, nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables experienced the greatest price hikes. In total, the average price of healthy foods in the United Kingdom increased threefold over the 10-year span when compared to less-healthy alternatives. Compounding this concern is that wage growth has been relatively flat since the Great Recession, further limiting access to proper nutrition for low-income families.
Between 2008 and 2009, according to the London School of Economics, the net weekly income for Britons fell by over 6 percent (it has since rebounded slightly and stagnated). Average hourly pay in the United States, meanwhile, has barely changed since 2000. This post-recession malaise is most often associated with long-term economic challenges, but could it also be generating greater levels of food insecurity?
“The standard definition of food security is that people should have physical and economic access to sufficient, nutritionally adequate and safe food,” the four-man research team writes. “[M]eaning that if economic constraints are gradually forcing people to replace more-healthy foods with less-healthy foods, they are becoming increasingly exposed to the risk of food,” they add.
Distinguishing certain foods, and food categories, by their relative healthiness is a challenge. The study’s conclusions, however, are based on a practical formula: Foods that are scientifically proven to provide the most nutrients are most healthy. To adequately analyze inflation-adjusted price increases, the researchers relied on a handful of popular foods used in the “basket of goods” to determine national inflation rates. In total, 94 foods and beverages constituted their sample size. A cross-analysis was then conducted.
A limitation of this method is that relative rates of nutrition exist across certain foods. Not every tomato can be deemed “healthy.” Some tomatoes may be exposed to pesticides that are hazardous and eliminate their capacity to offer the body nutrition. Fish may be a healthier option than red meat, but consuming too much swordfish can raise a person’s mercury level to an unhealthy state.
These findings do offer a few important reminders, however. First: Our parents were right; we need to eat our vegetables. But second, when the rise of healthy food prices outpaces income growth, people are left with an unfortunate set of options: Either stretch the budget for necessary fruits and veggies or double down on fattening (but filling) pastas.