Summer 2017

The Food-Price Effect

How much does price actually move the needle on your eating habits?

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Photo: Alamy

If there’s a sale on tomatoes, you’re more likely to buy them, right? But just how much does price actually move the needle on your eating habits? A study by co-first author Ashkan Afshin, a former postdoctoral fellow at the Friedman School now at the University of Washington, shows that even modest price shifts can have a big effect on what we eat.

The meta-analysis of 30 international studies found that as the prices of healthy foods go down, people eat them more. Each 10-percent decrease in the price of fruits and vegetables increased their consumption by 14 percent, and each 10-percent price cut for other healthy foods (such as low-fat milk) increased consumption by 16 percent. Conversely, people eat fewer unhealthy foods when their prices rise. Each 10-percent increase in the cost of sugar-sweetened beverages and unhealthy fast foods decreased their consumption by 7 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

The results imply that while diets can be nudged in the right direction by raising the price of bad foods—as some municipalities have done with soda taxes—subsidizing the cost of good foods could be even more beneficial to public health. “Our findings suggest that subsidies and taxes are a highly effective tool for normalizing the price of foods toward their true societal costs,” said senior author Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School. “This will not only prevent disease but also reduce spiraling health-care costs, which are causing tremendous strain on both private businesses and government budgets.”

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