Bad news if you’re trying to eat healthier – the price of processed food is increasing at a slower rate than unprocessed options, such as fruit and vegetables.
Stats NZ’s latest food price index showed food prices lifted 8.3% in August compared with the same time a year earlier, the largest year-on-year increase since July 2009, when prices were up 8.4%.
Fruit and vegetable prices increased by 15% and meat, poultry, and fish prices increased by 7.6%, while bread and cereals increased by 7% over the year and preserved, prepared, and processed meat increased only by 6%.
Pastry was the only processed food that increased above the less processed options, with an increase of 23%.
Vegetables had the largest impact on the monthly rise, influenced by higher prices for tomatoes, capsicums, and cabbage.
Briar Mills, who is studying towards a master of science in human nutrition, and Sarah Asmussen, who is completing post-graduate work in advanced nutrition practice at Otago University, said price increases were smaller for most processed food products.
“Over the last year, there has been an increase in the cost of both processed and unprocessed foods,” Mills said.
Some Kiwis say they’re thinking more carefully about the amount of food they’re wasting amid high prices. (Video first published in June 2022)
Processed foods were foods that have been changed from their natural form, such as flour into a biscuit.
But food can be processed to different degrees. A whole pineapple could be unprocessed, but if it was cut into pieces, it would be minimally processed. If it was tinned, it would be processed, and if it was turned into sweetened pineapple juice, it would be classed as ultra-processed.
“Minimally processed foods are processed for safety or preservation, such as cooking chicken and heat-treating milk to make it safe, or freezing fruit and vegetables to increase shelf life,” Asmussen said.
In comparison, creating highly processed or ultra-processed foods often involves the addition of sugar, salt, and saturated fat, she said.
“The higher degree of processing often means the products have lots of calories but not many nutrients. High consumption of these can lead to an increased risk of non-communicable diseases like heart disease. Therefore, eating more whole foods and minimally processed foods, and less heavily processed foods, is recommended,” Mills said.
Mills said unprocessed foods were affected more significantly by Covid-19 lockdowns, labour shortages, the war in Ukraine, and extreme weather events, which were the main contributors to the rising cost of food, as the cost to produce it was greater than unprocessed foods.
The rising cost of living meant people would be reaching for cheaper, more processed foods.
“A lack of time can also lead people to opt for more convenient food options, which are often heavily processed and energy dense,” she said.
Mills said if some unprocessed foods were getting too expensive, sticking to minimally processed foods would offer nutrients.
“Frozen vegetables still contain the nutrients that fresh vegetables do and can be a cheap alternative.”
Growing your own fruit and vegetables would help you save, as well as planning meals ahead and buying in bulk.