The high cost of healthy foods linked to malnutrition across the globe. According to a new study from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the price difference between healthy and unhealthy foods can explain the rise of international malnutrition, differences in dietary patterns, child stunting, and obesity among adults.
“Our research shows that most healthy foods are substantially more expensive in poorer countries,” said IFPRI Senior Research Fellow and study co-author Derek Headey. “But while healthier foods become cheaper over the course of development, so too do unhealthy processed foods, like soft drinks.”
To draw this conclusion, the team used national price data for 657 standardized food products in 176 countries collected under The International Comparison Program (ICP). They then developed a system to measure how costly it is to diversify diets away from bread, corn, and rice-based diets.
The study, published in The Journal of Nutrition, shows that higher caloric prices of a food item usually predicts lower consumption of that food.
The team saw that healthy foods were often the most expensive in the world’s poorest nations, especially foods that are nutrient dense and animal sourced, which are widely understood to be effective in reducing stunting. For example, eggs and fresh milk are often 10 times as expensive as starchy staples.
“Prior to this study, we already knew that the poorest children in the world weren’t consuming enough of the really nutrient-dense foods that promote healthy growth and brain development,” said Headey. “But now we have a better idea why: poor people also live in poor food systems. That combination of low incomes and high prices means they’re simply not going to buy enough and eat enough of these nutrient-dense foods.”
Poor child-feeding practices have often been attributed to lack of nutritional knowledge, however, the team believes that high prices of healthy foods may actually be to blame.
“The link between milk prices and stunting is especially strong,” said co-author Harold Alderman, “which is entirely consistent with a whole body of evidence on the strong linkages between dairy consumption and child growth.”
And although the team uncovered development processes put in place to make healthy foods more affordable, these processes also make unhealthy foods, like soft drinks and sugar-rich snacks, even cheaper.
“Public health agencies in upper income countries have been concerned with the high consumption of sugar-rich foods for some time,” said Alderman, “but our study shows that these products often become very affordable in middle income countries, and sometimes even in relatively poor countries where obesity rates are really on the rise.”
Nutrition-sensitive agricultural investments could make healthy foods cheaper, and the taxation and regulation efforts, like food labelling, can curb consumption of unhealthy foods, according to Headey and Alderman.
“These findings raise an important agenda for future research: understanding why food prices vary across countries, and sometimes within them, and how best to change food prices in a way that leads to better diets and nutrition outcomes in rich and poor countries alike,” Headey said.
Image Credit: Shutterstock/Alexander Raths