FOODS which are good for you now cost three times more than less healthy alternatives, researchers have found.
The study also found the price of healthy foods had risen more sharply than less healthy items over the past ten years.
Experts from the Centre for Diet and Activity Researches (Cedar) at the University of Cambridge, who tracked the cost of key foods and drinks per calorie, believe more could be done to take into account the cost of healthy living when making public health decisions.
The cost of fruit and vegetables was found to have risen by 103.8 per cent in the research period from 2002 to 2012, with prices for frozen pizza, bread, rice, potatoes and pasta falling disproportionately by 24.8 per cent in the same period.
Lead author Nicholas Jones said: “Food poverty and the rise of food banks have recently been an issue of public concern in the UK, but as well as making sure people don’t go hungry it is also important that a healthy diet is affordable.
“The increase in the price difference between more and less healthy foods is a factor that may contribute to growing food insecurity, increasing health inequalities, and a deterioration in the health of the population.”
The researchers, whose findings are published in the journal Plos One, analysed existing UK government data on national food prices and nutrition content of 94 foods and drinks from 2002 to 2012.
Examples of healthy foods which had risen faster in price included tomatoes, vegetable burgers, milk, yoghurts, salmon fillets and lean beef mince.
Unhealthy foods which had stayed disproportionally cheap included pizza, beefburgers, bacon, sugar-sweetened beverages, doughnuts and ice cream.
The former were consistently more expensive – and have risen more sharply in price over time.
In 2002, 1,000 kcal of healthy food – as defined by government criteria – cost an average of £5.65, compared to purchasing the same quantity of energy from less healthy food at £1.77.
By 2012 this cost had changed to £7.49 for more healthy and £2.50 for less healthy foods.
While less healthy foods had a slightly greater price rise in percentage terms, the absolute increase was significantly more for more healthy foods – a total average increase of £1.84 per 1,000 kcal for more healthy food across the decade, compared to £0.73 for less healthy food.
The cost of diet-related ill health to the NHS has been estimated to be £5.8 billion annually, researchers said.
Mr Jones said: “The finding shows that there could well be merit in public health bodies monitoring food prices in relation to nutrient content, hopefully taking into account a broader selection of foods than we were able to in this study.”
The study’s authors believe their findings on the rising cost of healthy food will tally with similar high income nations.
Senior author Pablo Monsivais said: “To help achieve long-term improvements in eating habits, we need to address the high and rising prices of healthier foods, which is likely to be influenced by a number of factors including agricultural policy and production, food distribution, and retail pricing strategies.
“Additionally, there is growing evidence that targeted subsidies can promote healthy eating for people on low incomes.”
The items compared were those which stayed in the “basket” used by the Office of National Statistics’ Consumer Price Index for the entire ten years.