How Do Food Prices Affect Childhood Obesity?

One of the logical assumptions about the current obesity epidemic is that it is caused by the wide availability of cheap junk food. Obviously, the food industry does not feel this way, and lays the blame elsewhere.

The Economic Research Service of the USDA decided to rigorously study the effects of food prices on weight gain in children. In a recently published a report “The Effect of Food and Beverage Prices on Children’s Weights” [PDF Download] they examined both the negative effects of cheap junk food and the positive effect of cheap healthy food.

What you need to know:

In line with expectations, higher prices for sugary drinks decreased consumption and as a result lowered BMI (body mass index). Conversely, cheaper fruits and veggies lowered BMI. Although statistically significant, food prices had only a small effect on children’s BMI.

Not all food prices had the same effect:

  • A 10% price increase for carbonated beverages is associated with a decrease of 0.42% in the average child’s BMI. This is about a quarter to half a pound of weight gain over the course of a single year.
  • The same price increase for 100% juices or starchy vegetables (e.g., potatoes and corn) is associated with a decrease in BMI of 0.3%
  • A 10% price decrease for lowfat milk is associated with a decrease in BMI of approximately 0.35 %.
  • A 10% drop in the price of dark green vegetables (spinach, kale, broccoli…) is associated with a reduction in BMI of 0.28%.

So do these rather small changes mean that food prices do not matter? That taxing soft drinks won’t work? Or that subsidies for healthy food won’t be effective?

Of course not.

Take a look at the graph below and see that prices over the last 30 years did not change by a measly 10%. Fruits and veggies are 3 times more expensive today than they were in the 1980′s (200% increase), whereas junk food prices rose only 50%.

Imagine if fruit prices had risen at the same rate of soft drinks. They would be HALF THE PRICE that they are today. Imagine that! People would probably buy much more of the healthy stuff…

Time for a change in the farm bill?

Will we get rid of those silly subsidies that promote cheap soda pop through surplus-corn-turned-HFCS?

What to do at the supermarket:

The price of junk food is not just the payment at the checkout counter in the grocery store. It’s the medical bills down the line. Heart disease is not cheap. Diabetes is not cheap. Just ask the pharmaceutical industry.

So buy less of the sugary / fatty / salty snacks, and with the money saved splurge on fruits and veggies; berries for example.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/bodynsoil Bodyn Soil

    Great post with lots of excellent followup information to read. Thank you for posting this and I love your site.

  • Soman Sangeeta

    Good & Nutritious food is available at high price so people go for cheap, tasty, fashionable and junk food develops child obesity.

  • http://theorganicgreencownextdoor.blogspot.com Smokey Bull

    Very interesting study! Thanks for posting this!

  • http://www.DalaiLina.com Dalai Lina

    And it doesn’t help that there is talk about allowing government food stamps to be redeemable at McDonald’s.  Yikes!

    • Angela Gustafson

      That cannot be for real. How horrible would that be. I think junk foods like candy bars, gum and soda should be excluded from food stamps as a way to help people make better *food* choices. (pipe dream)

      • M98emma

        food stamps/WIC vouches are limited to healthy foods. that’s why the recipients purchase the allowed, healthy foods in one “purchase” then buy the candy, soda and crap with their next transaction :( i’ve seen it multiple times first hand.

  • http://twitter.com/Nikballard Nick Ballard

    This is an excellent point. Food prices definitely effect the choices many people make. 

    The AJCN recently published an article by Giesen, J., Payn, C.Havermans, R., Jansen, A. (2011) looking at calorie information and increased taxes on high calorie foods. Interestingly their study concluded that when calorie information is given, it interferes with the food tax. http://www.ajcn.org/content/93/4/689.full

  • http://twitter.com/Nikballard Nick Ballard

    This is an excellent point. Food prices definitely effect the choices many people make. 

    The AJCN recently published an article by Giesen, J., Payn, C.Havermans, R., Jansen, A. (2011) looking at calorie information and increased taxes on high calorie foods. Interestingly their study concluded that when calorie information is given, it interferes with the food tax. http://www.ajcn.org/content/93/4/689.fullI wonder how effective a change in the prices would actually be?

  • Dina Rose

    Thanks for an excellent post.  One thing to consider in addition to price is volume.  It’s true that fruits and vegetables cost more than junk food, but when people eat fruits and vegetables they eat less (because they’re more filling and satisfying) than when they eat junk.  A few years ago someone did a study (can’t remember who), but I believe it was confirmed by Marion Nestle, that eating the RDA of fruits and vegetables is affordable–even at exorbitant prices because the volume needed nutritionally is much less than you think.  Dina http://www.itsnotaboutnutrition.com

    • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Fooducate

      great point

    • Angela Gustafson

      I am also interested in the susspission that artificial sweeteners and flavors make us crave real food later, which makes us think we are always hungry even when we over eat.

  • Kerri G

    This is very interesting.  As a new homeowner and not knowing what my finances were going to be, I found myself in the supermarket leaning toward the “cheaper” foods until I noticed that they were mostly “junk” foods.  I also have Celiac Disease and have to buy gluten free foods.  If you are familiar with GF foods, they are triple the price of regular food.  They make is VERY difficult for us to buy healthy foods.

    • Angela Gustafson

      Hi Kerri, just remember that getting gluten free foods is easy if you buy whole, unprocessed foods. Cooking from scratch can be less expensive in the long run, we just need to plan ahead, buy staples in bulk when possible, and adjust our tastes away from the foods we grew up with :) There are lots of great dishes out there that can be made inexpensively at home, that would cost 5x as much if they were tv dinners or just add water dinner kits.

  • Sara2

    Great post! This study is so interesting and unfortunately not surprising. Our food system is completely broken due to corn subsidies. The fast food industry leaders are exponentially more powerful lobbyists than small organic farmers and are therefore entirely able to control which foods are cheap. It’s up to the consumers to show that there is a strong demand for fruits and vegetables and put pressure on Big Agriculture to become more sustainable. 

  • Ottowash

    They’re worried people might get healthy. Seriously, illness is big money and they need a really hard push, like a boot or gun, to change their minds.

  • Deweydoes9

    Yes its true due to increasing rate of food products people wish to eat cheap food as it not hygienic food. More & more people use to switch over to fast food or junk food, which has lots of fat and which result into overweight. To over come this its our duty to join in this mission to fight against obesity & especially when children are targeted. It might your child who will have to fight for this. Deweydoes is foundation working for child obesity. Our motive is to spread awareness among Children, Parents, Teachers, Schools & Society. You can also help us to promote this campaign by liking our Facebook page which makes it more popular then what it is right now:- http://www.facebook.com/pages/Dewey-Does-110/315291233106.Come join us to save a child from child obesity.