Healthy food at a premium price: wrapping simple ingredients in luxury labels.

It’s well-researched and generally accepted: patterns of unhealthy dietary choices correlate with socioeconomic status. One research article I found analysed not just income versus food choices, but also considered how income variance and supermarket choice affected food expenditure and choices. The authors reached an interesting conclusion, and two points really caught my eye. Here’s the first one:

Supermarket choice may influence expenditure for patrons to some extent regardless of their initial motivations.

So even though an individual may tackle their weekly shop with the best of intentions, if they have a lower household income and shop at a lower-cost supermarket, that in itself could influence their food choices. The layout of the supermarket, the goods the shop promotes, the offers they push…all tapping away at the subconsciousness. Case in point: my local Aldi funnels you past shelves laden with biscuits, cakes, crisps and sugary cereals before you reach the fresh fruit and veg. Before you’ve walked 20 paces the temptation is almost too much to resist. The choice of foods on offer, of course, also have an effect. Some chains have a dozen different types of double choc chip cookies, and some chains have a dozen different types of organic raw paleo gluten free seed bars.

Ok, the second point that piqued my interest is:

…cost is still likely to be a significant contributor to healthiness of food choices… [and] actual and/or perceived cost of healthy diets may be key factors in tackling socioeconomic disparities in food purchasing choices.

So healthy food choices are thought cost more? And they do, right? Welllll…yes and no. This is where it can work both ways. Let me break it down as I see it.

Healthy food is perceived as expensive, so those with lower household incomes who don’t have the ‘spare cash’ to throw at such fancy pants food don’t BUY said fancy pants food. It’s maybe not even considered as an option.

Flip side: those with higher income and surplus cash buy all the fancy pants healthy food they can throw their wads at…regardless of the fact that it’s basically a box of seeds that is grossly overpriced. But it’s fine: it’s extra expensive so that makes it extra healthy…right?

When you take a closer look, produce like fresh vegetables, wholegrain rice, pulses (kidney beans, black beans etc), chickpeas and lentils are actually cheap. Meat is not cheap – or rather, it shouldn’t be when you think about what it actually is (but that’s for another post). But the fundamentals of a healthy diet are affordable – it’s the host of other influences and factors that contribute to the food choices we make: time; love or loathe cooking; knowledge of ingredients; addiction to sugar…so many more that all create a cauldron of circumstances.

You can spend £5.99 on a small box of organic granola (that consists of, yes, oats and seeds). Or you can buy a bag of oats, or natural muesli, and create your own for 1/20th of the price. It just won’t come in a pretty floral box.

The crux of the matter is this: food manufacturers and supermarkets are not making it easy or obvious for consumers to choose the healthier foods. Waitrose and Planet Organic play up to their shoppers’ desire for a soothing pat on the head in assurance that they’ve bought the healthiest foods and ticked an eco-credentials box somewhere. Meanwhile, Aldi and Farmfoods allow their processed and sugar-laden goods to take centre stage, while the more humble yet healthy foods hide in the shadows.

There is a middle ground somewhere, but it takes some savvy navigating to get there. And for most of us, we’re easily lost or redirected. We need better signposts or a more objective sat nav system that we can trust, where profit does NOT trump public health.

Article source: ‘Socioeconomic inequalities in the healthiness of food choices: Exploring the contributions of food expenditures’ (Rachel Pechey and Pablo Monsivais, 2016).

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