Could reframing ‘food as medicine’ counter rising prices that are pushing healthier options out of reach?

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/fcafotodigital
Source: Getty/fcafotodigital

Related tags food as medicine COVID-19 Inflation Supply chain

Food prices at near forty-year highs now overshadow most other consumer concerns about grocery shopping – including fears of contracting COVID-19 or experiencing violence in stores – prompting many to rethink where they shop, what they buy and what product characteristics justify premium pricing, according to two surveys released this month.

A survey of more than 2,000 US adults conducted in July and released yesterday by Deloitte found nearly half (48%) of Americans find in-store grocery shopping more stressful this year than last. While this still falls short of the 54% who said the same during the peak of the pandemic in 2020, it is up 8% from last year.

Unlike two years ago when concern about spreading or catching disease, like COVID-19, was a top shopping stressor, now concern about food prices leads the way as reported by 53%, followed by 13% who cited a change in their overall personal financial situation as a cause for shopping stress, according to Deloitte’s new report, Fresh Food as Medicine for the Heartburn of High Prices. ​Threat of disease now comes in a distant third with 12% noting it is a cause for stress while shopping.

Consumer concern about price is so great that it is even crowding out other qualities that once commanded premiums and were on the rise pre-pandemic, including sustainability, locally-grown and non-GMO, all of which are down at least 12 percentage points from 2019, according to the report.

Concern about price is hitting fresh food particularly hard with the percentage of consumers willing to pay a premium for fresh plunging 9 percentage points year-over-year to 61%, according to Deloitte. It adds almost one in five shoppers are swapping fresh for frozen or other shelf-stable food for cost savings – a rate that goes up among lower-income and rural groups.

Other ways consumers are responding to higher prices include pulling back on spending with nearly half buying fewer expensive food items and 40% reducing their food waste so they need to buy less.

Others are trading down and switching from name brand to private label (38%) or switching their primary store to one that offers lower prices, while about 15% are reducing online shopping to avoid paying related fees, Deloitte reports.

Can fresh leverage its health halo to counter trading down trend?

One attribute that could hold its own against rising prices, at least to an extent, is health and wellness, which Deloitte found 84% of consumers consider when purchasing fresh food and for which more than half (55%) said they were willing to pay a premium.

“Many consumers believe the right food can improve health and wellness. At least three in four consumers think fresh foods can boost their mental and physical performance, has preventative or therapeutic benefits or at times be the best medicine,”​ the report reveals.

Among the top preventative and therapeutic benefits that consumers seek from fresh food, include weight management (43%), preventing disease and preserving health (39%), building immunity (35%), managing existing health conditions (32%), cognitive performance (2%) and athletic performance (13%) among others.

Rising food prices associated with less healthful diets

While Americans increasingly understand the connection between their diet and health, not all are able to prioritize wellness over price, as revealed by another national survey conduced in late July by the University of Michigan published earlier this month.

The U-M Institute of Healthcare Policy and Innovation’s National Poll on Healthy Aging​ mirrored the consumer concerns about rising food prices found in the Deloitte study with three-quarters of Americans older than 50 years reporting higher grocery prices have affected them somewhat or a lot.

But unlike the Deloitte survey, this one found health and wellness concerns couldn’t hold up against price for nearly a third of Americans older than 50 who reported they were eating less healthily because of higher food prices.

The degree to which food prices impacted the healthfulness of Americans’ diets also hinged on their mental and physical health, household income and education with those of fair or poor mental and physical health, income of less than $30,000 a year and with a high school degree or less reporting food costs had a higher impact on them and they were eating less healthy because of cost.

“Think bigger picture”​ about the business potential of food as medicine

To help ensure that consumers can select as healthy a diet as their budgets allow, and cultivate a more loyal shopper base as an extension, the Deloitte report recommends food manufacturers and retailers work together to better educate Americans about nutrition.

According to Deloitte’s research, 62% of consumers cite conflicting information and confusion about the health benefits of specific foods, and four in ten do not understand which fresh foods “can act like medicine.”

Educational programs, like Guiding Stars labelling and signage, have demonstrated positive health benefits and, in some cases, have bolstered food sales for grocers – creating a win-win situation for consumers and retailers.

It also recommends that stakeholders back health claims for food with science and use registered dietitians and other medical providers to “vet and validate claims before connecting any benefit dots for consumers.”

From there, stores should stock healthy products at different price points, which might require building a “smarter supply chain” with enhanced tracking and traceability that can be provided to shoppers as they learn more, advises Deloitte.

Finally, the report encourages stakeholders to “think bigger picture,”​ which includes ways to join forces with clinical providers and insurance payors to promote healthy eating and offset costs at the consumer level.

[Editor’s note: If you are interested learning more about the food as medicine movement, including prescription produce programs and medically tailored meals, register for FoodNavigator-USA’s upcoming summit – a free, virtual event that will take a deep dive into future-proofing the food system. Learn more and register HERE​.]

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