The Relative Caloric Prices of Healthy and Unhealthy Foods Differ Systematically across Income Levels and Continents. uri icon


  • Background: Relative prices of healthy/unhealthy foods have been implicated in the obesity epidemic, but never extensively quantified across countries or empirically linked to undernutrition.
  • Conclusions: Relative food prices vary systematically across countries and partially explain international differences in the prevalences of undernutrition and overweight adults. Future research should focus on how to alter relative prices to achieve better dietary and nutrition outcomes.
  • Methods: We converted prices for 657 standardized food products from the 2011 International Comparison Program into caloric prices using USDA Food Composition tables. We classified products into 21 specific food groups. We constructed RCPs as the ratio of the 3 cheapest products in each food group, relative to the weighted cost of a basket of starchy staples. We analyzed RCP differences across World Bank income levels and regions and used cross-country regressions to explore associations with Demographic Health Survey dietary indicators for women 15-49 y old and children 12-23 mo old and with WHO indicators of the under-5 stunting prevalence and adult overweight prevalence.
  • Objectives: This study compared relative caloric prices (RCPs) for different food categories across 176 countries and ascertained their associations with dietary indicators and nutrition outcomes.
  • Results: Most noncereal foods were relatively cheap in high-income countries, including sugar- and fat-rich foods. In lower-income countries, healthy foods were generally expensive, especially most animal-sourced foods and fortified infant cereals (FICs). Higher RCPs for a food predict lower consumption among children for 7 of 9 food groups. Higher milk and FIC prices were positively associated with international child stunting patterns: a 1-SD increase in milk prices was associated with a 2.8 percentage point increase in the stunting prevalence. Similarly, a 1-SD increase in soft drink prices was associated with a reduction in the overweight prevalence of similar to 3.6 percentage points.

publication date

  • 2019
  • 2019