Healthier food now costs three times more than less healthy alternatives, academics claim, but retailers have accused their study of being misleading.
Researchers also found the price of healthy foods had risen more sharply than less healthy items over the last 10 years.
Experts from Cambridge University’s Centre for Diet and Activity Research tracked the prices of 94 key foods and drinks per calorie over ten years.
Their findings are disturbing given Britain’s obesity crisis and the reliance on food banks. The Warren Project in Hull has revealed how more than 1,600 young people have sought its food parcels in the last six months.
Lead author Nicholas Jones said: “Food poverty and the rise of food banks have recently been an issue of public concern in the UK, but as well as making sure people don’t go hungry it is also important that a healthy diet is affordable.
“The increase in the price difference between more and less healthy foods is a factor that may contribute towards growing food insecurity, increasing health inequalities, and a deterioration in the health of the population.”
But Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said it was “totally misleading to suggest healthy food is more expensive”.
“In fact the BRC-Nielsen Shop Price Index shows that fresh food inflation was flat for September,” he said. “Some fresh produce is cheaper now than it ever has been in real terms, especially with so many promotions in supermarkets. We need to challenge the perception that unhealthy food is cheaper than healthy food as it only discourages people from buying fresh foods.”
Healthy foods tracked for the study included fruit and vegetables, and fresh chicken and fish. Less healthy foods included frozen pizza and burgers, fizzy drinks and chocolate.
It was found that in 2002, 1,000 kcal of healthy food cost an average of £5.65, compared to buying the same energy from less healthy food at £1.77. By 2012 the cost rose to £7.49 for more healthy and £2.50 for less healthy foods.
Mr Jones said: “The finding shows that there could well be merit in public health bodies monitoring food prices in relation to nutrient content, hopefully taking into account a broader selection of foods than we were able to in this study.”
Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said: “Eating a healthy balanced diet doesn’t need to be difficult or expensive. Change4Life’s Smart Recipes app contains over 100 healthy, easy to make, affordable, calorie counted recipes, a great ‘smart recipes’ function which provides suggestions for a day’s meals, and a shopping list function which makes it easy to keep track of everything you need. Most recipes serve four adults and cost around £5 to make. NHS Choices also has tips to help meet your ‘5 A DAY’ on a budget.”
Ursula Philpot, lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at Leeds Beckett University, added: “It’s hard for people to make healthy choices when they are surrounded by unhealthy choices.”