jonno101101, flickr

The Seattle Times today highlights a new study from the UW School of Public Health showing healthy food is too expensive for many Americans:

“People who ate the most junk food paid the least for groceries but were the furthest from meeting the recommended intake of healthful nutrients. They also exceeded the recommended levels of saturated fat and sugars, which have been linked to chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. Those who spent the most on groceries ate the healthiest, coming closest to meeting the dietary guidelines.”

That matches up with trends we’ve written about in the past: since about 1985, the price of fruits and vegetables has gone up much, much faster than the price of sugars and sweeteners.

  • So, what are we to do? Mark Bittman, food writer for the New York Times, recently called for taxing unhealthy foods and using the revenue to subsidize nutritious ones. I think it’s a compelling idea that probably deserves more research.

    Yet there’s no guarantee that a tax/subsidy combo would actually cut down on empty calories. One recent study found that subsidies for healthy foods didn’t induce shoppers to buy more fruits and vegetables; instead, they used the savings on fruits and vegetables to pay for more junk. Taxing empty calories would probably help curb that. But still, plenty of studies show people just don’t do what you’d expect when you give them incentives to eat healthfully.

    In the end, there’s no single recipe for encouraging healthful eating. Prices can help steer the decisions of cost-sensitive shoppers, but that doesn’t stop junk food from being addictive. Education—particularly about which healthy foods offer the best bang for your buck—can also help people make better decisions. Even marketing might be part of the solution.

    What is clear from this new study is that low prices for junk food are leading to bad diets, and that it’s falling hardest on low-income folks who are less likely to have health insurance to cover the later costs of obesity. We put restrictions on cigarettes and alcohol; maybe it’s time to treat unhealthy food like the public health crisis it is.