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How can retailers and brands ease the cost of a healthy diet?

Healthy diets are a complex area. For example, there are multiple definitions (see What is a healthy diet? blog) and may have connotations with poorer price perception (see Health and price perception blog). Despite its complexities, in the latest round of dunnhumby’s US Consumer Trends Tracker, 47% of customers ‘consciously try to choose healthy foods when shopping’.

In this blog I’ll look at the cost of a healthy diet whilst providing retailers and manufacturers with additional thoughts on how to help customers cope with the cost-of-living crisis.

Pricing up a healthy diet

A 2020 global UN food security report found healthy diets are on average five times more expensive ($3.75 per day, using 2017 prices) when compared to diets that meet only dietary energy needs through starchy staples ($0.79). Healthy diets were also 60% more expensive when compared to a nutrient adequate diet ($2.33). The report, which uses the World Bank International Comparison Program database, found that more than 3bn people are unable to afford a healthy diet. This included Asia (1.9bn people), Africa (965m), Latin America & Caribbean (104.2m) and North America & Europe (18m).

And it’s not a problem limited to lower economically developed countries; according to a 2021 UK Broken plate report, the cost of more healthy food is three times as expensive as less healthy food (£7.00 vs £2.41 respectively, using 2020 prices). Furthermore, after accounting for housing costs, the poorest fifth of households would need to spend 40% of their disposable income, compared to 7% of the richest fifth.

However, there are a minority of studies which challenge the notion that healthy diets cost more. A 2021 US study found no difference in cost between a low energy density diet (i.e. healthy) when compared to high energy density diet (i.e. unhealthy). However, it was found that customers on a low energy density diet were more likely to spend more in a grocery store1.

So what more can retailers and brands do?

 The job of a retailer should not stop with the purchase of food. It should continue into how that food it processed and consumed. This additional element will not just reduce the costs associated with food; it will also support sustainability, resulting in healthier people and a healthier planet.

  • Decrease energy

Many western cuisines will involve two or three hobs boiling vegetables for dinner; however it may be possible to use just one hob if one were to use stacked steamers (think of Chinese dim sum steamers). Food can also be cooked more efficiently using microwaves (e.g. ‘baking’ a jacket potato) or using electric slow cookers, one pot meals, or quick stir fry recipes. These options are likely to be cheaper than using multiple gas hobs. Educating customers in how to cook for less should be a part of a retailer’s mission.

  • Provide recipes customers want

Financial pressures mean customers are likely to turn away from restaurants and increase cooking at home2. ‘Fakeaways’ (i.e., cooking restaurant food at home) may become an increasing trend3. Customers may therefore need to learn how to cook from scratch in a way that they may not be familiar with. Pointing customers to budget cooking resources would also prove useful (e.g., UK food blogger Jack Monroe who specialises in cooking on a budget).

  • Reduce food waste

We may also see a rise in more flexible recipes, which give more choice of a base (e.g. bread or rice), protein (e.g. eggs, soya), vegetable or fruit, combined with any herb, spice or condiment (e.g. mayonnaise) can be combined to create a meal. Unilever proved how a flexible recipe, see through fridge containers and measuring food waste could be used to decrease food waste when challenging customers to make a meal from leftovers4.

There are also apps which make use of leftover foods before it goes to waste. For retailers, partnering with or communicating these to customers will be an additional tool to demonstrate to customers a commitment to price sensitive and sustainable shopping5.

  • Reduce packaging

Rather than throw packaging away at home, refill stations are becoming more commonplace6. In the UK, Waitrose pioneered the move back in 2019, and now more retailers are experimenting with refill stations which are no longer restricted to just foods. Saving on the cost of packaging is another way to demonstrate a cost savings to customers.

  • Indulgent descriptions

While low-cost, nutrient dense foods are often available, such foods may not be deemed palatable or acceptable7. Perhaps one way to reverse this would be to use indulgent descriptions on foods rather than healthy descriptions. For example, ‘twisted citrus-glazed carrots’ led to more sales than ‘carrots with sugar free citrus dressing’8 (see sustainability nudge blog).

Conclusion

The majority of studies suggest healthy diets cost more than less healthy diets, so cost is a real barrier to eating well, especially for those on a lesser income. In the coming months, retailers and brands will need to flex a broader set of muscles to demonstrate their passion for supporting customers during the ongoing economic turmoil.

 

References

1 Vernarelli, J.A. and DiSarro, R. (2021). Debunking the High Cost of Healthy Diets: Consumer Behavior Predicts Dietary Energy Density in a Nationally Representative Sample of US Adults. American Journal of Health Promotion 35(4): 543-550.
2 Monsivais, P. (2022). Healthy Eating in Hard Times? Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 122(5): 909-912
3 shoppercentric.com/post/fakeaways-a-fad-or-here-to-stay
4 unilever.com/news/news-search/2021/one-use-up-day-a-week-cuts-food-waste-by-third/
5 bbc.co.uk/food/articles/food_waste_apps
6 IGD retailanalysis.igd.com/news/news-article/t/uk-grocers-unite-to-accelerate-refill-station-rollout-/i/29499
7 Darmon, N. and Drewnowski, A. (2015). Contribution of food prices and diet cost to socioeconomic disparities in diet quality and health: a systematic review and analysis. Nutrition Reviews 73(10): 643–660
8 Turnwald, B. P., Anderson, K. G., Jurafsky, D., & Crum, A. J. (2020). Five-star prices, appealing healthy item descriptions? Expensive restaurants’ descriptive menu language. Health Psychology, 39(11): 975–985.

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