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CHEAP AS CHIPS: Is a healthy diet affordable? – Christopher Snowdon, Institute of Economic Affairs

March 19, 2017

I have a friend who does a monthly check of prices in supermarkets for a variety of products. This research feeds into the Retail Price Index. This report is relevant and it quotes other studies. Obesity is reckoned to be caused by high prices of good good and offers on junk food.

It is widely believed that healthy eating is relatively expensive whereas ‘junk food’ is relatively cheap. This has led to an assumption that poor diets and obesity are directly caused by economic deprivation.

Some studies have compared the price-per-calorie of various types of food. The inherent bias of this method has the effect of making many high-calorie food products appear cheap. For example, a low calorie yoghurt appears to be more expensive than an otherwise identical highcalorie yoghurt despite both products retailing at the same price.

This report compares the price of food under two separate methodologies: direct comparisons of healthy and less healthy substitutes, and comparisons of healthy and less healthy products by edible weight. Prices were taken from two leading British supermarkets in November 2016.

A widely reported paper by the Centre for Diet & Activity Researches at the University of Cambridge, published in the journal PLoS One two years ago, claimed that healthy foods cost an average of three times more than less-healthy alternatives.

Snowdon notes that this is just one of a number of such studies recently carried out in the UK and the USA, all based on price-per-calorie comparisons. “If ‘unhealthy’ implies ‘fattening’ then it is almost guaranteed to make unhealthy food appear cheap since most ‘unhealthy’ food is high in calories,” he says.

Such comparisons began in the 19th century “when scarcity, not abundance, was the pressing issue and consumers needed to get the most calories for their money”, he adds – in contrast to the modern developed world in which “the challenge for many people is to avoid calories”.

Comparing measures of price-per-calorie and price-per-weight, Snowdon found that “a number of cheap, energy-dense and mostly healthy staples are inexpensive under both measures”. Cheese and crisps “are cheap if measured on a per-calorie basis but expensive if measured by weight”, he finds. By contrast: “Broccoli and leeks appear to be quite expensive under the cost-per-calorie measure despite being quite cheap by weight.”

There is little difference between the price of regular food products and their healthier substitutes in most categories, such as baked beans, soft drinks, milk and bread. A few healthier options are more expensive (e.g. brown rice, lean mince) while others are cheaper (eg. low-sugar breakfast cereals, yoghurt). White meat is significantly cheaper than red meat, but processed meat tends to be cheaper than fillets of meat. Most healthy substitutes cost the same, or are within 10 per cent (+/-), of the less healthy option.

Measured by edible weight, healthier food in supermarkets tends to be cheaper than less healthy food. A wide range of fruit, vegetables and starchy carbohydrates are available at ≤ £2.00 per kilogram. By contrast, the majority of less healthy products, such as ready-meals, chocolate, crisps and bacon, cost ≥ £3.00, with very few available for less than £1 per kilogram.

With the exception of fish, all of the food groups recommended in the UK government’s Eatwell Guide can be bought for less than £2.00 per kilogram and a wide range of vegetables are available for less than £1.00 per kilogram. The recommendation of eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day can be met for as little as 30p.

The ingredients for a nutritious meal can be bought for significantly less than the cost of ‘junk food’, ready-meals and – by a wide margin – takeaway food. It is not the direct cost of less healthy food choices that drives their consumption. On the contrary, it seems that UK consumers are prepared to pay more for taste and convenience. Neither price nor nutritional quality are necessarily considered paramount by food shoppers.

A cheeseburger costs £1 – the same cost of a kilo of sweet potatoes, two kilos of carrots, two and a half kilos of pasta, ten apples or seven bananas. And the Government’s daily recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables can cost as little as 30p.

Since healthy food is generally cheaper than less healthy food, it is unlikely that taxes and/or subsidies would have a significant impact on dietary choices. Taxing food that is disproportionately consumed by people on low incomes in order to subsidise food that is disproportionately consumed by people on high incomes would be heavily regressive unless people on low incomes responded by changing their dietary habits dramatically, which is unlikely.

Measured by weight, stereotypically unhealthy food products such as microwave ready-meals, frozen pizzas, crisps, chocolate and sugary breakfast cereals are much more expensive than fruit, vegetables, wholemeal bread and muesli.

Recently published research from the USA helps explain why people perceive healthy food to be expensive. In a series of behavioural experiments, Haws et al. (2017) found that consumers tend to assume that more expensive food products must be healthier, even when the products are nutritionally indistinguishable from cheaper substitutes. The mere existence of a price premium seems to be enough to imply health benefits. One reason for this, argues the chef Anthony Warner (2016), is that fad diets and wellness gurus ‘focus almost solely on exclusive, exotic ingredients’ such as quinoa and chia seeds at the expense of ‘cheap, easily consumed sources of valuable nutrition like carrots, potatoes, bread and cheese’. Organic and gluten-free food, for example, is assumed to be healthier as a result of the exaggerated claims made on their behalf and because they are more expensive

Obesity is related to economic factors but not in the way that ‘public health’ campaigners often claim. The crucial factor is absolute affluence, not relative poverty. Prosperity gives people the option of spending less time cooking, or not cooking at all. It allows us to burn fewer calories by giving us labour-saving devices, motorised transport and sedentary jobs. The labour-saving options are not cheap when compared to the alternative of cooking a healthy meal or taking a walk, but they are cheap in absolute terms. As a proportion of income, they have never been cheaper. Expenditure on food and non-alcoholic drinks amounts to just 11 per cent of the average household budget. Even among the poorest fifth of the population, it is only 16 per cent

The report argues that it is a lack of exercise, not eating too much, that drives obesity.

However, some have criticised the report as “laughable nonsense” and says that the report misses one crucial point – that people lie about how much they eat.

Food consumption is not the only thing that people don’t tell the exact truth about. There is a difference between lying and not telling whole the truth. Smoking is a classic example. If a doctor asks: ‘do you smoke’? The answer might be ‘just a little’, when in fact the patient might smoke heavily – more than ‘just a little’.

Do you snack in between meals, ‘Just a little’? Not a lie but not exactly telling the whole truth either. Crisps, chocolate bars, fizzy drinks, biscuits, cakes, ice cream – they are plentiful on the supermarket shelves. They have a long expiration date because the turnover of such foods is rapid. It is easy to find a bar of chocolate with an expiration date of two to three years as supermarkets know they will easily clear their stock.

It has become more difficult to find a healthy cereal on the shelves. There are far more chocolate and icing coated products than ever, none of which I can stand.

Takeaway away food is another high calorie meal and some people indulge in eating it despite already having eaten an evening meal. Standard post-pub-food stuffs.

Obesity is not due to overeating, primarily. It’s due to the combination of genes and eating a high sugar/carb diet. It’s triggered by raised insulin.

Asked if the IEA gets funding from the food industry Chris Snowdon says “I don’t know. Quite possibly .. by all means assume that we do.”

Canon Angela Tilby (Church Times 10.iii.17) reckons: Mr Snowdon does not quite dedare his hand. He is, in fact, a polemicist against the “nanny state”; he opposes government inter­vention in such matters as the price of alcohol and the amount of sugar in foods. In other words, he believes in the power of choice….. Surely in Lent, as we consider our own patterns of hunger, abstinence, and consumption, we can see that poor nutrition is more than a matter of private choice. The persistent anxiety that runs through society can make anyone reach for the high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt comfort options, in preference to leafy greens and pulses. In this, the poor are particularly vulnerable. And our vulnerabilities are exploited by those who continue to feed our addictions, making mon­ey out of misery.

The report is online here

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