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Since the beginning days of the pandemic, the global economy has been hit by a significant surge in food prices, or as shoppers (and the media) prefer to call it — food inflation. For health and wellness professionals, understanding the implications of this is crucial, both for personal knowledge and for advising our shoppers how to navigate the aisles.

Food inflation is primarily driven by a combination of factors including supply chain disruptions, climatic changes affecting crop yields and the geopolitical tensions (especially those from the Ukraine/Russia conflict) that impact global trade.

The USDA Economic Research Service’s Food Price Outlook for 2023 and 2024 reports that while food prices grew more slowly in 2023 than in 2022, they are still above historical-average rates. In 2023, the report states, all food prices are predicted to increase 5.8%, with food-at-home prices predicted to increase 5.2% and food-away-from-home increase to 7.1%. USDA’s 2024 price prediction is for an increase of all food prices of 2.9%; which I hope is the case, but fear it may be higher. It’s important to note that the USDA Food Price Outlook forecasting methods are based entirely on statistical models — and may not be reliable in the event of unprecedented climate occurrences or global political turmoil.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these issues, leading to unprecedented increases in the cost of basic food items. This rise affects not just the economics of food, but also its accessibility, and in many cases, nutritional quality and choices.

In 2023, we experienced price increases in the food-at-home categories of: beef and veal (4.0%), other meats (4.6%), poultry (3.4%), fish and seafood (0.4%), dairy products (4.0%), fats and oils (9.3%), fresh vegetables (0.9%), processed fruits and vegetables (8.5%), sugar and sweets (8.9%), cereals and bakery products (8.5%), nonalcoholic beverages (7.2%), eggs (0.4% — after the over 22% increase from 2021 to 2022) and other foods (6.8%).

During the pandemic, many shoppers gravitated towards comfort foods and snacks that they grew up with, for consolation and reassurance; and too often disregarded the tenants of good nutrition.

Coming out of the pandemic, higher food prices dominated the headlines — as a result, there was a tendency for consumers to gravitate towards cheaper, processed foods instead of fresh fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. These processed food options are often high in calories but low in nutritional value, posing a threat to public health, particularly in terms of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

As 2023 draws to a close, one food commodity is worth mentioning. Sugar prices, a mainstay in processed foods, should continue to see price increases (in my opinion) and be well above the almost 9% rise this year. The unusual dry spell (caused by El Nino) in India, Thailand and Asia, three of the largest sugar export countries, has resulted in lower sugar crop production. Brazil, the number one producer of sugar, accounting for a quarter of global production, has also seen lower exports because of bottlenecks in shipping, although the country has reported a rebound in sugar production. It’s important to remember that in 2022, we saw a sugar price increase of 10.4%; totaling almost a 20% increase of the crop over the two-year period.

According to the University of California San Francisco, 74% of packaged foods sold in U.S. supermarkets contain added sugar; and the impact of the price of sugar on these foods is noteworthy. On average, UCSF reports, Americans consume 57 pounds of added sugar each year.

As a health and wellness professional, there are several strategies you can adopt to help your shoppers and clients navigate food inflation while maintaining a healthy diet:

Education on budget-friendly nutrition: Educate clients on how to choose nutrient-dense foods that are also economical. Legumes, whole grains and seasonal produce can offer balanced nutrition without breaking the bank.

Promoting home cooking: Encourage clients to cook at home. This not only saves money, but also ensures control over ingredients, helping to maintain a healthy diet, especially as the food-away-from-home cost continues its upward spiral.

Mindful eating practices: Emphasize the importance of mindful eating. This practice can help clients enjoy their meals and recognize satiety cues, potentially reducing overall food consumption. Suggest that during mealtimes they put away their phones (check out www.foodnotphones.com for more information).

Adapting meal plans: Be flexible in adapting meal plans and nutritional advice to account for the changing availability and prices of food items.

The challenge of food inflation is not just an economic issue; it’s a health issue that presents an opportunity to rethink our shoppers’ relationships with food, emphasizing sustainability, nutrition and community support.

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