Food price policies improve diet quality while increasing socioeconomic inequalities in nutrition

Prices are an important determinant of food choices. Consequently, food price policies (subsidies and/or taxes) are proposed to improve the nutritional quality of diets. The aim of the present study was to explore the impact of food price policies on the expenditures and nutritional quality of the food baskets chosen by low- and medium-income households.
Experimental economics was used to examine two price manipulations: i) a fruit and vegetable price subsidy named "fruit and vegetables condition"; ii) a healthy-product subsidy coupled with an unhealthy-product tax named "nutrient profile condition". The nutrient profiling system called SAIN,LIM was used. This system classifies each individual food according to its overall nutritional quality which then allows for a food item to be taxed or subsidized. Women from low- (n = 95) and medium-incomes (n = 33) selected a daily food basket, first, at current prices and then at manipulated prices. The redistributive effects of experimental conditions were assessed by comparing the extent of savings induced by subsidies and of costs generated by the tax on the two income groups. Energy density (kcal/100 g), free sugars (% energy) and the mean adequacy ratio (MAR) were used as nutritional quality indicators.
At baseline (before price manipulations), low-income women selected less expensive and less healthy baskets than medium-income ones. After price manipulations expenditures for both income group decreased significantly, whereas, the nutritional quality improved (energy density decreased, the MAR increased). Additionally, the redistributive effects were less favourable for low-income women and their nutritional quality improvements from baseline were significantly lower.
Low-income women derived fewer financial and nutritional benefits from implemented food subsidies and taxes than medium-income women. This outcome suggests that food price policies may improve diet quality while increasing socio-economic inequalities in nutrition.

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