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Altering prices of seven foods could save thousands of U.S. lives each year, study suggests

Changing the cost to consumers of just seven types of food — making the healthful ones (like fruits and vegetables) cheaper and the unhealthful ones (like sugary drinks) more expensive — could significantly reduce the number of Americans who die each year from coronary heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, according to a study published recently in the journal BMC Medicine. 

Such changes would especially benefit lower-income Americans and would therefore help address the growing health disparities between the rich and the poor in the United States, the study also found.

An unhealthful diet is considered a major cause of coronary heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, and people with lower incomes are known to be at higher risk of developing these and other cardiometabolic diseases

As the authors of the study point out in their paper, past public health interventions to get people to improve their food choices, such as education campaigns or more detailed food labeling, have had some positive effects on Americans’ dietary habits — but mostly among people with higher incomes and more education. 

Study details

For the current study, a team of researchers from Tufts University did a comparative risk assessment analysis using national data on the food choices of Americans (broken down by age, gender and socioeconomic status), the known associations between those foods and the risk of developing cardiometabolic diseases, and the effects of price changes on people’s buying habits.

The researchers focused on five foods that have been associated with a lower risk of disease (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds) and on two that have been associated with a higher risk (processed and unprocessed red meats and sugary drinks).

The analysis revealed that if the prices of all of these foods were altered by 10 percent each (lowered for the healthful foods and increased for the unhealthful ones), an estimated 23,000 deaths per year could be prevented in the United States — or about 3.4 percent of all deaths from coronary heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. 

If prices were altered by 30 percent, the number of lives saved would triple, to an estimated 63,000 per year, or 9.2 percent of all deaths from the three cardiometabolic diseases.

The largest impact of the altered food prices was observed for stroke, followed by diabetes and then coronary heart disease. Stroke deaths were most influenced by subsidies for fruits and vegetables, while diabetes and coronary heart disease deaths were most influenced by taxes on sugary beverages. 

The analysis also showed that the people who would benefit the most from strategically designed food subsidies and taxes were those whose education did not extend beyond high school — an outcome that would greatly reduce socioeconomic disparities in all three diseases: heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

“Given the large and growing inequities in dietary quality and [cardiometabolic disease] risk in the U.S., our findings for disparities are particularly relevant,” the study’s authors write.

Limitations and implications

The study has several limitations. For example, the dietary data used in the analysis were based on people’s self reports of their eating habits, which can be unreliable. In addition, knowledge about the effects of various dietary factors on disease comes mostly from observational studies, which can show only a correlation, not a causal relationship, between those factors and health. (The harmful effect of the saturated fat in meat on heart health is a particularly controversial topic.)

Furthermore, there’s no way of knowing for sure what foods consumers will turn to if harmful foods are taxed.

Still, the study’s findings are interesting, particularly given the fact that previous public health efforts to get consumers to make more healthful food choices has done little to change behavior.

The “traditional focus in the United States has been on education and willpower and personal responsibility as though food is just entirely an individual choice and there’s nothing else anybody should do about,” Dariush Mozaffarian, the study’s senior author and dean of the nutrition science and policy school at Tufts University, told Newsweek reporter Sydney Pereira.

But, other public health crises in the U.S. — such as tobacco use and motor vehicle safety — were dealt with systematically rather than shifting blame on the individual, Mozaffarian added.

Food is the “single biggest missed opportunity to good health in this country,” he said. “Prices and fiscal incentives are a great way to do that for the food system while preserving choice.”

FMI:  You can read the study in full on the BMC Medicine website.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/04/2017 - 10:02 am.

    I can already hear

    …the howls from cattle producers and the many, many people involved in the production and sale of “sugary drinks.”

  2. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 12/04/2017 - 01:01 pm.

    Why were Takis not included?

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/04/2017 - 01:56 pm.

    Great – another “scientific’ suggestion study…

    Of course we need the government to make dietary decisions for the masses – empowered by brute taxation.

    Who else is free of special interest and politics like the Government that enables them to make these choices?

    Of course there are many who believe that the constant consumption of unhealthy tax dollars will just continue to feed the obese and inefficient nanny State.

  4. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 12/04/2017 - 02:05 pm.

    All we have to do now…

    …is find the secret buttons that “change food prices.”

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 12/04/2017 - 03:08 pm.

    If you care even a little bit about

    your health I think you understand an apple is better for you than a Coke. Again, liberals stating that those that would benefit the most are the regular folks with just a high school degree, whom they assume can’t understand what is good for them. How pretentious can you get??? So we need Government to tell us what eat? Will they also make us get 8 hours of sleep by medicating us at 10pm and a wake up call at 6am? Please don’t use taxes to force behaviors, oh wait, we have “sin taxes” on alcohol and cigarettes. How’d that work?

    • Submitted by Colin Brownlow on 12/04/2017 - 03:20 pm.

      Oh come off it

      Government already has its finger on the scale in a massive way. All sorts of direct and indirect subsidies on corn, processed foods, sugars etc. Eliminating those subsidies and redirecting them to simpler healthier foods would go a long way to changing dietary habits for the better.

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 12/04/2017 - 06:11 pm.

    I agree.

    No subsidies for anything including oil, food, cars, wind, solar. Also no Govt finger on what I eat, what car I drive, how I heat my house and 100 other things some folks believe is best for me!!!

  7. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/04/2017 - 09:45 pm.

    In North Korea people eat what government tells them to eat… On the other hand, imagine what will happen if the steak prices will go significantly up: We will hear that it is only the wealthy who can have their steak and eat it, too, so we need to help the poor more to be more equal…

    OK, really, this is just that same old question: How much should government help people who don’t want to help themselves? Because, as Mr. Smith noted, there are plenty of other areas of improvement: more sleep, more exercise (can it be made mandatory?), more reading… Can government send everyone a free parcel full of fruits and vegetables every week with a book and a free YMCA pass as a supplement? Tax on soda, sweets, and deli? But, actually, I think all of them are already taxable unlike other food. No tax on exercise equipment?

    Seat belts are different – they prevent immediate injury or death. Extra tax on alcohol and tobacco? I don’t know – do they really reduce smoking and drinking?

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