With food prices across Canada set to rise again this year, experts are warning that higher grocery bills could translate into less healthy diets for low-income families. But a new study from the Institute of Economic Affairs in the United Kingdom argues against the common perception that eating healthily is the more expensive option, showing that healthy whole foods like fruits, vegetables and starches, while perhaps not containing the flavour hit of some processed foods, are pound for pound the cheaper choice.
As the loonie continues to lag in the low 70-cent US range, paying for fresh fruit and vegetables is likely to get even more expensive for Canadians. Last year, produce prices increased by between 9.1 and 10.1 per cent, according to a report released in December which predicted another increase this year of up to 4.5 per cent for grocery store staples. Similar findings came in a study entitled Canada’s Food Price Report, released by Dalhousie University, which found that food staples like meats, vegetables and seafood are expected to cost up to six per cent more in 2017.
The higher costs are thought to make it more difficult for Canadians to put together healthy meals, especially for those in lower income brackets. "It's students. It's senior citizens. It's the working poor. It's new immigrants," says Diana Bronson, executive director of Food Secure Canada, to the CBC. "The wrong kind of food is cheap, and the right kind of food is still expensive.”
Yet a new study from the UK indicates that the task of eating healthily may be more about food purchasing choices than about the cost of certain foods. While other research has made comparisons based on price-per- calorie, which can often make it appear that high-calorie junk food, for example, is cheaper than lower-calorie staples like fruit and vegetables, the new study looks at price products by edible weight, giving an entirely different picture.
The study found that healthier supermarket food choices are consistently cheaper by weight, showing that fruit, vegetables and staples like pasta and potatoes are commonly available at less than $3.29 per kilogram whereas ready-made meals, chocolate, potato chips and bacon regularly come in at over $4.93 per kilo. The cost of meeting recommended food guidelines for daily consumption of fruits and vegetables also came in at less than $1.64 per day.
“A diet of muesli, rice, white meat, fruit and vegetables is much cheaper than a diet of Coco Pops, ready-meals, red meat, sugary drinks and fast food,” says study author Christopher Snowden, director of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), to the Daily Mail. “A nutritious diet that meets government recommendations is more affordable than ever.”
But the perception that eating well costs more is a pervasive one, says Snowden. Studies have shown that, psychologically, people regularly associate a higher price with higher quality and, thus, healthier food. And while it has often been pointed out that obesity rates are higher among low-income populations, Snowden says that the connection may be more about food choices and actual time and energy available to cook with healthy, whole foods in comparison to ready-made meals.
“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, motorized transport and sedentary jobs,” says Snowden.
In the end, we are choose the more unhealthy foods not because of cost but because they are quicker and are perceived to be more flavourful, says Snowden, who points out that while a
McDonalds cheeseburger may only cost $1.50, one could also buy a kilo of sweet potatoes, two kilos of carrots or pasta or a bunch of bananas for the same amount. “A single McDonalds cheeseburger contains 301 calories but does not constitute a meal,” says Snowden. “A more filling and nutritious meal would be cheaper under any metric, including the cost-per-calorie measure, even after cooking costs.”