Is there really a price barrier to healthy eating?

Obsolete methodology is blamed for view that healthy eating is more expensive.

Cheap as Chips: finds five-a-day available for under £1 - image: IEA
Cheap as Chips: finds five-a-day available for under £1 - image: IEA

A new report by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has challenged the perception, prevalent in academia and public health, that healthy eating - and particularly achieving the Government's target for people to consume five portions of fruit and vegetables each day - is more expensive than unhealthy eating options.

In November the new chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard, said: "For people that have got a low income five-a-day is really, really hard. It's expensive to have five-a-day." She called for fruit and vegetable price reductions to encourage greater uptake.

But according to IEA director of lifestyle economics Christopher Snowdon: "The idea that poor nutrition is caused by the high cost of healthy food is simply wrong." In Cheap as Chips, published this month, he compares a range of foods bought from British supermarkets at the end of last year and concludes that, taking the NHS definition of an adult portion as 80g, "consumers can eat their five-a-day for well under £1".

A combination of carrots, peas, tinned tomatoes, pineapple slices and an apple can be bought for as little as 30p, while a more expensive combination of broccoli, sprouts, fresh tomatoes, grapes and an orange costs 83p, he found.

Obsolete methodology

Snowdon blames the persistent view that healthy eating is more expensive on obsolete methodology. Comparing different ways of achieving the same calorific intake "has the effect of making many high-calorie food products appear cheap", he points out.

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."

Competing on price

Comparing the cost per kilogram of 20 "unhealthy" and 23 "healthy" food products, and selecting the lowest-priced in each category in two supermarkets, Snowdon concludes: "All the fruit and vegetables examined in both supermarkets cost £2 per kilogram or less. Oven chips, sausages and biscuits were the only processed foods that could compete with the healthier items on price."

Meanwhile, "stereotypically unhealthy food products" such as microwave ready-meals, frozen pizzas, crisps, chocolate and sugary breakfast cereals "are much more expensive than fruit and vegetables" when compared by weight. "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. 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."

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