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Is healthy food really more expensive than junk food?

It's tempting to blame poor diets on the cost of healthy food. But does that stand up to scrutiny? Chloe Winter speaks to the experts..

It's a familiar complaint: why is Coke cheaper than bottled water? Why are fish 'n' chips cheaper than a home-cooked meal?

How can we be expected to eat healthy, so the line goes, when takeaways and treats are cheaper and more convenient?

Inflation-adjusted food prices followed a downward trend (with the odd blip) for 30 years between 1975 and 2005, but have begun to creep up again in the past decade.

There is more than a grain of truth there — but experts say the wider issue is our attitude towards food preparation..

Fifty years ago, the default scenario had the man of the house as the breadwinner, and the woman as a full-time housewife who prepared home-cooked meals. Nowadays, men and women both have demanding jobs, so there is less time to cook a meal from scratch.

Otago University department of human nutrition associate professor Winsome Parnell said healthy foods were not always more expensive, and the real issue was that Kiwis lacked food preparation skills.


"Fifty years ago, supermarkets didn't look like they do today — I'm old enough to remember that — and we cooked food from scratch. So you made a meal by peeling potatoes, chopping carrots, cutting up a cabbage, cooking a casserole, you didn't buy a pizza, or pre-prepared foods. You just did it.

"What has changed is that people now expect to spend little time preparing food and to be able to buy a lot of it pre-prepared," she said.

"So if you want to do that, the cost of the food is higher because there is still processing gone into it - it's halfway there before you buy it.

"You are paying for the preparation. Now that's an expectation, which, 50 years ago, we didn't have."


But how has the cost of food changed how we eat?

"It hasn't," Parnell said.

"Put it this way: if you are on a constrained income — either on a low income, or on a benefit — you will find it difficult to buy all the healthy foods you need because cost becomes a greater influence.

"So cost affects the food that all of us choose — whether we are on a high income or low income — but ... when the proportion you would spend on food gets constrained, you will probably be forced to buy less of the healthy options."

So is eating healthier more expensive?

"For some things yes, for other things no," she said.

​Sally Mackay, a research assistant at the University of Auckland, said New Zealanders did not need to spend more to have a healthy diet.

"People can be tempted to buy convenience foods and fast-food due to lack of time. Preparing healthy meals can take time.

"We compared the cost of popular takeaway meals to similar healthy meals prepared at home — the home-cooked meals were cheaper than the takeaway meals."

Adding the cost of preparation and waiting time meant half the home-cooked meals were still cheaper than the takeaway meals, Mackay said.

"There is a perception that healthy food costs more.

"I think the increase in availability, accessibility and marketing of cheap junk foods that are high in energy, salt, fat and sugar has made it easier to choose unhealthy foods over healthy core foods like fruit and vegetables."

However, New Zealanders had made some positive changes to their diets, such as eating less saturated fat.

"But fruit and vegetable intake is still inadequate for many and of course the prevalence of overweight and obesity has increased."

OUR KEY FINDINGS (based on inflation-adjusted figures):

* Food prices followed a downward trend (with the odd blip) for 30 years between 1975 and 2005, but have begun to creep up again in the past decade.

* The price of all items have come down over time, except beef and milk.

* Beef prices saw the biggest increase, up 87 per cent, while milk was up 37.5 per cent.

* Cheese and ice cream prices have come down by about 50 per cent over 50 years.

* In 1987, the cost of buying every item (excluding eggs and oats) in our basket was down 16 per cent on the year before. Almost all items were down, with the biggest decreases being onions, potatoes and carrots, which were all down by between 27 per cent and 35 per cent.

* In 2008, the largest annual increase in recent times, with the total cost of buying one of each item (excluding eggs and oats) in our basket up 13.7 per cent. Carrots, potatoes and butter were all up by more than 30 per cent.

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