Man Holding Grocery Basket

Hefty price tag for healthy diets

U. WASHINGTON (US) — The price of nutritious food is rising faster than less-healthy options, leading to a dietary disparity between the haves and have-nots, a new study shows.

Researchers say its time to rethink U.S. food policy, which through its subsidies encourage production of a limited range of foods that may not necessarily be part of a nutritious diet. Their report is published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

University of Washington researchers previously found that better quality diets are more costly than less nutritious diets, and that there is a rising disparity in the price of healthful foods.

“The twist with this new study is that we’ve connected the dots that could explain why people in a lower socioeconomic status have less nutritious diets,” says Pablo Monsivais, acting assistant professor of epidemiology.

Researchers studied data of more than 1,300 men and women from the Seattle Obesity Study, a population-based study of food access, diet quality, and health among King County, Wash. residents.

They first looked at how diet cost was associated with educational attainment and household income, two indicators of socioeconomic position. They used statistical methods to control for total calorie intake and other factors. The average diet cost was higher for people with higher educational attainment and higher household income.

People with lower educational attainment had diet costs that were an average of $1.09 per day lower than that of persons in the highest group ($8.19 to $9.28 per day).

Those with the highest educational attainment or income also enjoyed the most nutritious diets. Those in the highest income group reported diets that were on average 9.3 points higher in nutrient density than diets reported by the lowest income group (96.6 versus 87.3 percent), after controlling for dietary and demographic factors.

However, after taking the cost of food into account, the difference in dietary nutrient density between the highest and lowest groups shrank to 1.4 percentage points (93.0 versus 91.6 percent). “These results tell us that cost is a major factor in explaining the differences in eating habits between people of lower and higher socioeconomic level,” says Monsivais.

Monsivais says the Seattle study should be replicated on a wider, more diverse (in terms of education, income) section of Americans—or in another country.

Study results provide fodder for new and different nutrition policy and interventions, which for the last several decades have been mostly premised on the idea that poor diets were due to a lack of nutrition knowledge or insufficient motivation for healthy eating.

“The most universal policy change or intervention would be to rethink how we encourage the production of foods,” say the researchers. “In this country, we have a very expensive agricultural subsidy program that targets a limited range of foods that are not part of a nutritious diet. We do not support fresh produce or seafood, but instead support the production of inexpensive sugars, fat and refined grains. We need to align public health priorities with agricultural policies because it affects the largest number of people.”

In addition, Monsivais says states could be more creative with public school food programs and other nutrition efforts that affect low-income people. California has experimented with an electronic benefits transfer program (food stamps) that rewards people who buy fresh produce, which makes having a healthier diet easier and more affordable.

Food retailers and grocers could also help consumers make healthier choices, says Monsivais. by using “member” cards that can be used in a helpful and healthful way, offering up coupons for items that are nutrient-rich.

More news from the University of Washington:

chat3 Comments


  1. Karen

    access is another problem. Big grocery stores with large produce sections don’t tend to be in easy access of major cities – leaving folks in urban areas often with little shops with hardly any fresh produce. Encouraging farmers markets in urban areas would be a big help.

  2. jill

    Rice, pasta and potatoes have been staples of low income people for years(centuries) because they are a low cost, filling option. Fresh fruit, vegetables and meat are expensive. Also, because of lower incomes, time may be a crunch and therefore more fast food purchased. t isn’t a surprise that the following study has come up with these results. They would also have achieved many of the same results surveying a post-secondary school population – “starving students” and their diets.

  3. KMN

    Unfortunately I don’t have access to the full text of the article — at least, not without paying a fee — so I’m left to wonder about the member card issue mentioned in the last paragraph of this piece.

    I would love to know if the researchers provide any sort of ‘business case’ for using member cards in this fashion. I am assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that food manufacturers subsidize the coupons and other ‘rewards’ that member cards provide. I also assume that less-processed foods are more nutrient rich (i.e., natural nutrients left in rather than removed and then replaced with nutrient additives). If so, I could imagine that major manufacturers dealing in frozen vegetables would fit the criteria, but am confused as to whether manufacturers of fortified breakfast cereals would also count.

    So, under this concept, who would decide for a given retailer what food items are (legitimately) nutrient rich enough to qualify? Even if many major manufacturers’ products make the cut, would the profit margins on these foods be appealing enough that they would desire to fund the coupons/rewards for them? (Given the current vogue for government spending cuts, if they don’t underwrite such a program, who would?)

    So curious.

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