High prices of healthy food increase malnutrition

Poultry activities in Lower Nyando
A man purchasing eggs from a local vendor Copyright: K. Trautmann/CCAFS, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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  • Researchers assessed the impact of food prices on nutrition outcomes globally
  • Healthy products such as eggs and milk were more expensive in low-income countries
  • Children in such countries are getting protein from plant sources, an expert explains

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[ACCRA] The differences in prices of food products across countries may explain the variation in increased malnutrition globally, with high prices of healthy foods—the natural food that is thought to have health-giving qualities—including eggs in lower-income countries being a key culprit, a study says.

The study adds that the relative prices of healthy and unhealthy foods have been implicated in increased cases of obesity in some countries and such prices could also be linked to nutrition outcomes including undernutrition globally.

“There are about two billion people with micronutrient deficiencies such as anaemia, and several hundred million very young and vulnerable children suffering from stunted growth globally,” says Derek Headey, the study’s lead author and a senior research scientist at the International Food Policy Research Institute, United States.

According to the study published in The Journal of Nutrition last month (23 July), researchers estimated prices of 657 standardised food products using the 2011 International Comparison Program survey that focused on 176 countries. They calculated how the price of a calorie of a given food compares with that of a representative basket of starchy staple food in each country — a measure called relative caloric price.

“For Ghana, it is true because we don’t produce much milk but in Kenya or East Africa it may not be true.”

Rose Omari, Science and Technology Policy Research Institute, Ghana

With the aid of other datasets and demographic health surveys conducted in several countries, the researchers linked the relative caloric price values to consumption of food groups among children up to five years old and women between 15 and 49 years old, and evidence of nutrition outcomes such as undernutrition and overweight.

Headey explains that if increasing taxes on unhealthy food products is not having the desired effects, something has to be done to discourage consumers from patronising unhealthy food products and producers from producing them. 

The study adds, “Fortified infant cereals, designed to supply complete nutrition to infants, were relatively cheap in high- and upper middle-income countries but moderately expensive in lower middle-income countries and very expensive in low-income countries, where undernutrition in early childhood is most prevalent.

“In much of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, these products were almost ten times as expensive per calorie as starchy staples, on average.

“Most nutritious foods are expensive in low-income countries. Eggs and fresh milk, for example, are often ten times as expensive as starchy staples in caloric terms.”

Headey says that the high cost of eggs and milk in Sub-Saharan Africa is troubling and may explain why children’s consumption of these products is so low in the region.

But Rose Omari, a senior research scientist at the Science and Technology Policy Research Institute, Ghana, says that although the study helps explain the impact of food prices on nutrition, the finding that milk is expensive may not be uniform across all low- and middle-income countries.

“For Ghana, it is true because we don’t produce much milk but in Kenya or East Africa it may not be true,” says Omari, who conducts food and nutrition research.  “What we promote here in Ghana and other countries are plant sources of protein such as soybeans which are relatively cheaper. Animal products are good but we also need to educate people on which ones are healthier and which ones are not.”

Omari adds that it is unclear what the authors consider as healthy foods.

“They need to show clear distinction between nutritious and healthy foods,” she says.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.


Derek D. Headey and Harold H. Alderman The relative caloric prices of healthy and unhealthy foods differ systematically across income levels and continents (The Journal of Nutrition, 23 July 2019)