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The price of healthy eating

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Thibauld Braet

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2022-09-12

The price of healthy eating

It’s March 2020 and suddenly we’re all forced to spend time at home and because restaurants and bars are closed, all together we rediscover our kitchen and our passion for banana bread. We’re forced to learn how to cook and are eager to make healthy lifestyle changes by cooking healthy and exercising more.

Fast forward to February 2022 and our passion for banana bread is being threatened by a war causing a sudden increase in the price of flour. What do we have to do now? Are there other alternatives to discover?

Obviously, expensive banana bread is the least of our concerns compared to a worldwide pandemic and war. However, a less reported but apparent trend is also threatening our way of living. It’s the one of highly processed food, taking out all nutrients and replacing them by o so delicious fats, sugar and salt. This is causing more and more people to become overweight, leading to a variety of chronic diseases, putting a burden on our healthcare systems and overall quality of life.

An easy remark is to say that obesity is simply a lack of discipline as there are many healthy food choices that can easily be added to one’s diet. Is it really that simple? Even for people with a military discipline, those healthy choices are not as accessible as one might think. It’s no secret that eating healthy is overall more expensive. But how expensive exactly? That’s what we’ll try to find out in this new data visualisation blog post.

About Healthy food

This blogpost is not at all intended to be opinionated as is the case with most diet trends. The goal is to focus on quantifiable metrics to decide how accessible healthy food is and if we really need to grow some discipline.

How do you define how healthy food is? There are still many unknowns about the human body and the impact of food on it. On the back of the package, you can find the nutritional label. This includes information like amount of (un)saturated fats, carbs, sugars, fibers, protein, salt and possibly more. How do all these interact with each other? How do they impact health? To answer this question in a straightforward way, some researchers came up with the Nutriscore which we’ll also use for the sake of this analysis.  One metric to score a food by combining all nutritional metrics into one formula. A very good job when it comes to communicating data: the simpler the better! Will this be the perfect metric? Probably not, but what you give in on accuracy, you largely compensate by interpretability! We will thus not dive into details of the calculation of this score. The only thing you need to remember is that A is very healthy and E very unhealthy.

We probably don’t have to tell you where to find healthy foods in the supermarket. We all know fresh vegetables and fruits are healthy and we probably shouldn’t buy that pint of ice cream. There’s however a whole range of products in between those extremes. To check our conception about healthy food, we’ve scraped the food items from several online supermarkets and categorised their products. Luckily, most websites nowadays also give you the nutritional information so we scraped those as well and calculated the Nutri score for every category.

It’s nice to see our common sense seems to be right. The less processed the foods, the healthier usually. So why not just follow our common sense and buy these healthy foods?

Price of healthy eating

We’ve established how to measure how healthy food is, now it’s time to measure “accessibility”. We’ll make the assumption you have physical access to a supermarket as well as time to go there. The only thing that might hold you back is your budget. We’ll thus take price as a proxy to measure how easy you have access to healthy foods.

The general conception is that processed foods are usually cheaper than fresh and healthy alternatives.  Let’s see if the healthy food categories identified earlier also correlate with higher prices.

For every food category, we took the price per 100 kcal and took the median to represent that food category. Well, it turns out that many of the healthy food categories are also pretty damn expensive, requiring more than 1€ to consume as little as 100 kcal. At the bottom of the ranking, we see foods high in sugar and processed carbs, confirming its reputation as a cheap ingredient. If you want to eat enough veggies and some healthy protein, you require about 20€ per day.

Of course, no diet should exist out of only one food category. What we are really interested in, is how accessible healthy and varied eating is for people with a tight budget. Let’s say we’re an average human being that needs to consume about 2000 kcal to fulfil their daily calorie requirement. The goal is to fill these 2000 kcal with food as nutritious as possible for a cost as low as possible.

How much does our diet cost when we base it on the Nutri Score instead of food categories. We thus try to select healthy foods across multiple categories. What we see is that again, overall,  healthy food choices are much more expensive. Filling your plate with only food items with a Nutri score of A, will cost you on average more than 15€ a day or thus about 450€ a month and that doesn’t even take into account the possibility of going out eating. If you’re a family of four, this means, 1800€ of your monthly budget would go to food.

Available money is not something you can easily change, especially for less well-faring households, food can be something on which they prefer to save as much as possible. According to research of the Flemish government, an average household in 2021 spent 5.268€ on food on a yearly basis or about 2.337€ per person. For the 25% households with the lowest income, this is reduced to 3.431€ per household, for the top 25% earners, this is as high as 7.217€ per household. That’s a factor 2.1 difference. There is thus some inequality when it comes to availability to healthy food.

It's clear that fully relying on foods with Nutri label 'A' is pretty expensive which is only affordable for the top earners of our society. Add to this the increased calorie requirement to maintain an active lifestyle as well and you quickly realise that maintaining a healthy lifestyle is only for the lucky few. Nutrition has an incredibly important impact on our overall health which brings tons of other benefits like increased performances at school and work. These again allow you to earn more money. Do you notice the vicious circle you might get stuck into?

How to break this vicious circle? Well that’s a political discussion about wages, taxes and subsidies in which we don’t want to take a stand. As always it will have to be a solution benefiting all parties, not just punishing one. After all, we’re Belgians so we’re supposed to be good at compromising ;)

We’re very curious to see how this analysis evolves as food prices are going through the roof. We might come back with an updated analysis to you or if you have an interesting question regarding rising food prices, we’d more than happy to crunch the numbers and give you an objective answer.

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