Increasing the price of less healthy foods may not work to reduce consumption unless accompanied by educational programs and an overall change in cultural norms, suggests a new study in the Journal of Nutrition.
The authors, from the University of North Carolina, said that government subsidies for grains, sugars, fats and animal products have made these items relatively less expensive to consume than fruits and vegetables – and therefore healthier foods tend to be more expensive than less healthy ones. Various systems of taxation and subsidization repeatedly have been suggested as a way to combat the problem, but the authors of this latest study suggest that any initial change in consumption habits toward healthier foods would likely be reversed as people become used to higher prices.
“It is unknown if taxation without regulations or other activities known to shift eating behaviors lead to long-term dietary change,” they wrote.
In an effort to find out, the authors examined data from the Russian Longitudinal Monitoring Survey, which detailed dietary habits of 25- to 55-year-olds across Russia from 1994 to 2005.
Russia – like other former Soviet states – provides an example of the long-term effect of price shifts on dietary patterns. The Soviet Union provided high subsidies for high-fat meat and dairy and promoted the consumption of animal protein, without education about possible negative effects on health. The promotion of animal foods was stopped by the 1980s and, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the price of these foods increased, spiking in 1998, the authors wrote. However, the population was never educated about the potential effects of high saturated fat or animal product intake and the country had high rates of obesity and heart disease.
The authors found that although consumption of fats, oils and animal-derived foods declined as prices rose, eventually people reverted to earlier consumption patterns.
They wrote: “It is plausible that taxation of junk food items would produce an initial decrease in consumption of these items; however, without public education, any increase in household income would be accompanied by a return to consumption of these items as the population becomes accustomed to the new higher prices.”
In conclusion, they suggest that the Russian experience shows price changes alone would not lead to long-term changes in dietary patterns.
“Price changes led to substantial shifts in the structure of food consumption. However, except for the most expensive items, consumption of items returned to levels consumed in the former Soviet Union following price stabilization,” they wrote.
Source: The Journal of Nutrition
Published online ahead of print. doi: 10.3945/jn.110.125419.
“Prices Changes Alone Are Not Adequate to Produce Long-Term Dietary Change”
Authors: Jocilyn Dellava, Cynthia Bulik, and Barry Popkin