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The Pricing Paradox

I eat a lot of vegetables. Not just because I’m a vegetarian and know they’re good for me, but also because I genuinely like them. When grocery shopping, I try to buy mostly fresh produce, whole grains, and individual ingredients, while avoiding (most) packaged foods.

But eating this way isn’t always easy, and it sure isn’t cheap. I know I’m not the only one that feels this way. People are short on time, short on money and short on resources. To make matters worse, the environment we live in isn’t very supportive of our health.

In general, many people know that fruits and vegetables are healthier choices than fast food. But that doesn’t change the fact that fresh produce is usually more expensive than packaged, processed foods or take-out from a fast food restaurant. How can we honestly expect people to buy more of the healthy items when they cost so much more?

One strategy that tries to fix this problem is to lower the prices of healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables. If we could make it cost less to eat healthy, people would eat more of the good stuff, right?



Unfortunately it isn’t that simple. A few days ago, a friend sent me an article that reminded me of a presentation about food pricing that I heard while at my UNC course last summer. The article talked about a study done at the University of Buffalo where researchers made healthy foods cheaper while keeping the prices of junk food the same. They wanted to see how that would effect food choices made by moms in a grocery store. Not surprisingly, when the prices were cheaper, moms did buy more healthy foods. But here’s the catch: the overall nutrition in their carts didn’t change. Instead of using the extra money to buy more healthy foods (or saving it), the moms actually used to it buy more junk. Not quite the result one would hope for.

So then what about doing the opposite? Will the overall effects be better if instead of lowering the cost of healthy foods, we raised the prices of the unhealthy ones? Taxing foods and beverages that have low nutritional value (like soda or fast foods) can encourage people to buy less. But, as you may have guessed, there can also be negative consequences to this. Such as the fact that it has a larger negative effect for families with lower income, and can unfortunately leave them without options if there aren’t cheaper healthy options to replace the foods they now can’t afford. Not to mention the fact that it can be difficult to know where to draw the line. How do we actually define “not nutritious?” And how do you prevent people from buying other unhealthy (not taxed) foods instead?

Well then, if neither option is perfect alone, what would happen if you raised prices of unhealthy foods while also lowering prices of the healthy ones? Sounds like a perfect solution, right? Sadly, researchers have found that this isn’t a great solution either. The subsidy isn’t enough to overcome the negative impacts of the tax.

At this point, I’m sure it must sound like it’s time to just throw up our hands in defeat. Either that, or I suddenly have no faith in my profession and everything we are trying to do.

It may not sound like it, but my goal here is not to sound defeatist. I realize that I have raised a lot of problems without actually proposing a good solution. But my point is that there really is no simple answer. We know that as a country, our health needs work. We don’t eat healthy foods, we don’t exercise enough, and rates of obesity and chronic disease continue to grow. Something needs to be done to fix the health of our nation, but the solution isn’t going to be a simple one. Just like we can’t simply tell people to eat healthier and expect them to change, we can’t just change prices and expect our problems to be solved. Behavior change is a tough thing, especially when it involves behaviors that have become deep-rooted habits. It’s going to take a lot of time and many different strategies to reverse the bad habits of our country.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying! And I’m interested to hear your thoughts about all this. Do you find that buying healthy foods is tough because of the price? And how do you think we can help encourage people to eat more fresh, whole foods, while also making sure these foods are affordable and easy to access?


Allison Aubrey. Why Making Healthful Foods Cheaper Isn’t Enough

Shu Wen Ng. Driving a Response: Considerations for Point of Purchase, Pricing and Promotion (presentation at 2010 Obesity Prevention in Public Health Course at UNC; August 2010).

23 Responses to The Pricing Paradox

  1. the price definitely comes into play, but the convenience does as well. i think it takes more effort, planning, and time to eat well vs. eating easy. that combined with all the emotional attachment that comes with foods…its so complicated! it does get overwhelming when you try to sort out all the causes and search for solutions. but thanks for brining it up and helping us to process through these murky waters :)
    the dawn´s last post ..the week’s end- 21 weeks to go

    • I agree. And I think that’s part of the reason why the simple price change didn’t work — it’s a much more complicated issue than that!

    • I agree about the convenience factor. For overworked and underpaid parents, the easiest solution is probably to go to the drive-thru instead of cooking up wholesome meals. I do think frozen and canned veggies help though.
      Liz´s last post ..To Turkey Trot or Not

  2. I believe it comes down to education and habit with the heavier emphasis on habit. How many people when asked about the nutritional value of junk food will already know it is bad for them? People choose it because it is quick and easy. Rest assured that if there was a way to package a healthy snack cheap and easy then it would be done. Corporations are about profit not health.
    I know a very smart woman who talked about “Food Deserts” as being the problem. But, your insightful blog points out that the problem still comes down to the poor choices people make and not what is available to them. Thank you for that.

    • Well, actually I’m trying to point out that it’s both! :) Food deserts are a real problem and not everyone has access to affordable healthy foods. But people aren’t drones either — they have their own habits/preferences and tend do what comes easiest. So you can’t just make healthy foods cheaper and expect things to change. There are so many factors at play, the problem really needs to be approached from all angles.

  3. I appreciate this post a lot because I think that too often this issue gets simplified. You’re so right that there is no easy answer, but that just means that we need to get a little more creative!
    Katie @ Health for the Whole Self´s last post ..Lessons in Being Supportive- An Interview with My Husband

  4. I can’t begin to describe how unfortunate that I think it is that people may have limited access to healthy food simply because it isn’t affordable. We can educate the masses about the benefits of a nutritious diet but at the end of the day a dollar can only be stretched so far. I agree that the answer isn’t simple but I think governments should look into subsidies that could also lower healthcare costs in the long wrong if implemented in the right way.

    • I agree — prevention is definitely the better investment! Spending money in ways that can prevent problems will end up saving a lot of money down the line, since treatment costs so much more.

  5. Ohhh…my favorite topic to discuss! It’s never that easy, as you say. I am frustrated by the price of fresh produce, but I also think we’re too spoiled. For example, I can still buy asparagus right now even though it is out of season. It’s flown in for me and I can pay an arm and a leg to get it onto my table. If we learned to eat more in season, things wouldn’t be as expensive. Apples are only 89 cents a pound right now!!

    The other problem is that we’re trained from an early age that green beans are “gross” and chocolate chip cookies are “delicious”. So, yes, price is a factor but our overall outlook toward food is too.

    • We definitely are. And that’s another thing that further complicates the issue. But even focusing more on local foods is tough. There are many places where this simply isn’t feasible to feed the entire population (particularly in the winter). It’s tough.

      And yes, unfortunately those things are engrained in us, and we’ve got to change that mentality. I mean, cookies are delicious, but healthy foods can be too!

  6. Have you read anything about the SNAP Healthy Incentives Pilot in Mass? I think that might provide some insight to this issue as well. I fear the possible public reaction that would occur with taxing SSBs or candy. But it’s interesting to look at our food sector in comparison to other countries, which do tax non-essential food items.

    • I had not heard about it! Thank you for sharing. It looks like an interesting pilot, and I’m definitely interested in reading more about it. Do you have more info besides what’s on the USDA website?

  7. I am never disappointed by the price of fresh produce especially now that I can REALLY taste a difference. A local apple you buy at a farm vs. an apple that was shipped from California to Market Basket will taste different and I am willing to pay more. I shop at multiple grocery stores because of that fact. I get packaged foods (that are mainly for my hubby) at Market Basket and then buy all my veggies and fruit at Farmers Markets and Whole Foods. Its worth the price and really at then of the day, its REALLY not that expensive and cooking healthy is really NOT hard.

    People are just clueless. My friends think because I joined a CSA I only eat “organic” food. I tried to explain to them that eating locally is more important then eating organic to me. They didn’t get the difference. My brother buys most of his veggies already cut and sliced in packages from Trader Joe’s. He doesn’t get that then that food has become “processed.”

    I think people need to learn all about shopping the perimeters of grocery stores. There really is no need to go down aisles. Look at ingredients, look where food is from, etc. etc.
    lizzy´s last post ..Restaurant Review- Amrheins

    • Yes, I think there is so much confusion about food in this country. We’re so disconnected from what is healthy and what is good. So instead, it becomes the default to just get what is convenient.

  8. Here’s something I would just LOVE to see: handouts in the produce/bulk aisle with images and directions about how to prepare items. If you aren’t raised seeing it done, it can be intimidating or simply baffling. Having simple recipes or ideas handy also decreases the risk of the food going bad, because the consumer has a plan in mind. Anything to make cooking seem fun, creative, beautiful, easier than you think. A lot of people’s choices have less to do with economics than with comfort/habit/familiarity. Making people more comfortable with new products is key.

    • Very good point! People aren’t going to try new things if it’s not familiar. Especially if they’re shopping for their family on a budget. Why spend money on something your family could potentially hate (and that you don’t know what to do with)?

  9. I mean if I were rich I would be able to afford the freshest fish daily, sushi, etc. It’s a sacrifice sometimes.

    The whole sugar tax concept is one that I would actually support, seeing as I have a serious issue.
    Nichole´s last post ..Oh the Weather Outside is Weather

    • For some reason your comment went to my spam! weird…

      The sugar tax issue is a dicey thing. It could definitely encourage people to buy less soda (or candy, etc), but people get so outraged whenever they hear the word “tax”

  10. Working with children and families in the inner city has caused me to think about prices and food choices often. 93% of the the population in one of my schools lives below the poverty line. At snack time, the kids either have big bags of chips and 20oz. Vitaminwater or nothing at all. I feel like these families are lacking the knowledge they need to really make responsible, healthful food choices. Clearly, the snack they choose is not an economical option, yet it’s what they know. They’re the type of people that walk to the corner store on a rainy day to buy food. They have no cars, so the big weekly trip to the store to shop the sales is not a part of their life.

    Now that I’ve gotten off on a tangent – I’m really trying to agree with this post. Price alone will not solve our problem. There are much larger, societal problems that play into the food choices made in this country.
    Becky´s last post ..Scenes From a Short Week

    • My neighborhood has a similar demographic, and although cigarettes are $11 and tax is added to unhealthy foods, the parade of people buying them (plus several lotto tickets) on a daily basis makes me doubt taxes are the answer. The kids may have no winter coats, but those items still sell.

  11. This is such a tough issue. And as you pointed out, there’s no clear answer. A simple price increase or decrease is not enough to make people change their behavior. Just like knowledge isn’t enough to prompt people to make healthier choices. I’m sure most people are well aware that produce is healthier than soda, but they still make the unhealthy choice.

    This subject saddens me so much. So many people barely have anything and a can of coke may be one of life’s few “luxuries” and eating out at McDonald’s may be the only “restaurant” people can afford. I wish there was an easy solution.
    Jen´s last post ..Relatively speaking- How to deal with annoying family questions this holiday season

  12. Not only is it price, but I think the convenience factor plays a huge role. If you spend the extra money for fresh fruits and vegetables, you need to have the extra time to prepare them. That’s of course, assuming that you know what to do with them. There are instructions on the prepackaged unhealthy foods (add water, put in microwave…) but there aren’t instructions on say, an eggplant. You have to go out of your way to figure out what to do with it. So not only is it money, it’s time and energy, too.

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