Soaring Prices of Healthy Foods Fuel Worsening Health Risks in Countries, Study Finds

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A new study says the relative prices of healthy and unhealthy foods have been implicated in increased cases of obesity in some countries and such prices could also be linked to nutrition outcomes including under-nutrition globally.

According to the study, the differences in prices of food products across countries may explain the variation in increased malnutrition globally, with high prices of healthy foods—the natural food that is thought to have health-giving qualities—including eggs in lower-income countries being a key culprit.

The study’s lead author and a senior research scientist at the International Food Policy Research Institute, United States, Derek Headey, says “there are about two billion people with micronutrient deficiencies such as anaemia, and several hundred million very young and vulnerable children suffering from stunted growth globally.”

According to the study published in The Journal of Nutrition last month (23 July), researchers estimated prices of 657 standardised food products using the 2011 International Comparison Program survey that focused on 176 countries. They calculated how the price of a calorie of a given food compares with that of a representative basket of starchy staple food in each country — a measure called relative caloric price.

With the aid of other datasets and demographic health surveys conducted in several countries, the researchers linked the relative caloric price values to the consumption of food groups among children up to five years old and women between 15 and 49 years old, and evidence of nutrition outcomes such as under-nutrition and overweight.

Headey explains that if increasing taxes on unhealthy food products is not having the desired effects, something has to be done to discourage consumers from patronising unhealthy food products and producers from producing them.

The study adds, “fortified infant cereals, designed to supply complete nutrition to infants, were relatively cheap in high- and upper-middle-income countries but moderately expensive in lower-middle-income countries and very expensive in low-income countries, where under-nutrition in early childhood is most prevalent.

“In much of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, these products were almost ten times as expensive per calorie as starchy staples, on average.

“Most nutritious foods are expensive in low-income countries. Eggs and fresh milk, for example, are often ten times as expensive as starchy staples in caloric terms.”

Headey says that the high cost of eggs and milk in Sub-Saharan Africa is troubling and may explain why children’s consumption of these products is so low in the region.

But, Rose Omari, a senior research scientist at the Science and Technology Policy Research Institute, Ghana, says that although the study helps explain the impact of food prices on nutrition, the finding that milk is expensive may not be uniform across all low- and middle-income countries.

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