The publication last week of research suggesting the price gap between healthier and less healthy foods is widening will have been greeted with concern by public health experts and policymakers. Food companies should be worried too, but they should also be encouraged by the direction this research may take the debate.

The study, undertaken by researchers from the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (Cedar ) at the University of Cambridge, combined statistics from the Consumer Price Index and the National Diet and Nutrition Survey to track the price of 94 key food and beverage items between 2002 and 2012.

It found healthy foods were three times more expensive per calorie than less healthy foods in 2012, and had risen more sharply over the previous decade.

Using the UK Food Standards Agency’s FSA-Ofcom nutrient profiling model, the researchers found 1,000 kcal of healthier foods cost an average of GBP5.65 (US$9.05) in 2002, with that cost rising to GBP7.49 by 2012. Meanwhile, 1,000 kcal of less healthy foods cost GBP1.77 in 2002, rising to GBP2.50 in 2012.

Research has shown lower income groups have higher rates of obesity and diet-related illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, and these at-risk groups are also known to eat more foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar than more affluent consumers. Awareness about diet and nutrition is undoubtedly lower among less affluent consumers but the primary reason why their consumption of such foods is higher is because it is cheap.

Confirmation the price gap is widening is a further concern at a time when public health agencies are trying to address obesity, particularly among at-risk population groups.

The researchers suggest that as the price gap widens so will the health inequalities. “This trend is likely to make healthier diets less affordable over time, which may have implications for individual food security and population health, and it may exacerbate social inequalities in health,” the study concludes.

The researchers suggest their methodology could be used as the basis for continued food price monitoring “to inform public health policy”. The subtext here is influencing the comparative price of foods could be a legitimate and effective public health measure in the fight against obesity. 

Once again, the problem of obesity is being discussed in the context of food pricing but the discussion here is not about taxing less healthy products. Rather, as the researchers are specifically highlighting the sharper rise in prices of healthier foods, the focus is on making healthier foods less costly. 

The distinction is important for a number of reasons. 

Nutrient taxes are not popular with policymakers as they are a hard sell politically and there is scant hard evidence of their effectiveness in tackling obesity. Food companies, moreover, are fiercely opposed to them, making them even less attractive to politicians who understand the value of a harmonious and constructive relationship with the food industry.

The industry argues against nutrient taxes because they demonise foods which for many people when consumed in moderate quantities will do no harm. The problem with that position is that these foods are eaten in wholly inappropriate quantities by many people, particularly in certain at-risk consumer groups, and the industry’s pricing and marketing policies carry some of the responsibility for that. 

However, the industry’s insistence that there are no unhealthy foods, only unhealthy diets is not consistent with what companies often say about their better-for-you ranges. Quite simply, if one food product can be marketed as better for you, it is entirely justifiable and logical to brand another with a contrasting nutritional profile as less healthy.

It is just as well for the industry there are more persuasive arguments against nutrient taxes, namely that their effectiveness is unproven and that they are regressive. 

And, interestingly, these weaknesses do not come into play when the issue is tackled from the other direction with a focus on making healthier products more affordable. Not only is subsidising or otherwise incentivising the purchase of healthier foods in no way regressive but there is generally stronger evidence for its effectiveness in reducing obesity.

“To help achieve long-term improvements in eating habits, we need to address the high and rising prices of healthier foods, which is likely to be influenced by a number of factors including agricultural policy and production, food distribution and retail pricing strategies,” says the study’s lead author, Dr Pablo Monsivais. “Additionally, there is growing evidence that targeted subsidies can promote healthy eating for people on low incomes.”

This shift of emphasis towards incentivising healthier products should be welcomed by industry. Not only does it move the focus away from nutrient taxes but it arguably represents an opportunity for positive, proactive engagement by food companies.

Last week, Food Ingredients Europe’s Reformulation Series conference in Amsterdam saw food technologists, marketers, academics, health campaigners and others discuss the considerable progress that has been made in reformulating products to reduce salt, sugar and fat levels. 

The challenge for food companies is reducing levels of fat, salt or sugar by substituting other ingredients and adapting production processes will in most cases increase costs. Substitute ingredients are generally more expensive and production processes can be more complex to allow the inclusion of ingredients which will alter the nutrient profile of a product. Devising new formulations represents an investment in research and development. Given all that, it is hardly surprising that better-for-you products are so often priced at a premium.

Last week’s conference showed how major food companies have engaged and continue to engage the considerable expertise and financial resources at their disposal to address daunting technical challenges but the question of the cost of reformulated products and the critical challenge of making better-for-you products more affordable was not extensively explored. However, this is likely to be an increasingly discussed topic going forward, and companies may find there is much to be gained from pushing as hard on the affordability of reformulated products as they clearly have on overcoming technical obstacles.

While governments may be looking to incentivise better-for-you products, the industry’s reputational standing with policymakers and public health advocates would be greatly enhanced if companies themselves are making discernible strides in narrowing the price gap between healthy and mainstream products. Moreover, if there is a concerted push towards such products, including fiscal incentives, the potential commercial benefits are likely to be enhanced. 

The continued monitoring which the researchers recommend should also be embraced by the industry. To begin with, it may show some improvement since 2012 as the industry’s reformulation efforts have gathered pace. Any future work food producers and retailers do to narrow the price differential would also be independently recorded and recognised.

Mobilising its resources to boost the affordability of better-for-you ranges will give industry an infinitely more positive message and contribution to bring to the diet and health debate than its obdurate if justifiable opposition to nutrient taxes, and it will be one that public health advocates will applaud.

The University of Cambridge study can be found here.