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How rising food prices contribute to malnutrition

Food deserts

Introduction


Over the past year, there have been news articles explaining how food has become more expensive along with people choosing between heating their homes and paying for groceries. According to the Office for National Statistics, the yearly cost of food and non-alcoholic drink has risen to 19.1% within one year till March 2023. There are various reasons for the food price increase; some of them include Brexit, lack of agricultural productivity and weakening of the British pound .


Therefore, the spending habits of the general population has shifted towards ultra-processed foods (UPFs) as they tend to be cheaper compared to minimally processed food (MPFs). Yet, UPFs are really unhealthy with a cohort study discovering that there was an increase in mortality by 18% with each additional serving. For people living in food swamps and deserts, this is a harsh reality for them and there has to be policies to properly address this. 


The difference between food deserts and swamps


Food deserts are places where populations have limited access to healthy and affordable food (i.e. MPFs); there are factors that contribute to this phenomenon such as having lower income or geographic location whereby there is a long distance to the nearest market. However, the increase in food prices as illustrated above can even be a part of the problem.

In contrast, there are food swamps, which are areas containing more businesses that sell foods lacking nutritional value, so UPFs as opposed to MPFs. This also relates to the cost of groceries because certain populations living in food swamps are likely to purchase UPFs because they are in closer proximity than MPFs, besides being cheaper.


Both situations can contribute not only to obesity, but other forms of malnutrition which will be explored below.  


Malnutrition


To suffer from malnutrition means that there is an imbalance of nutrients and can be categorised based on undernutrition or overnutrition along with disparity in macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).


Additionally, there are countries experiencing specific forms of malnutrition such as undernutrition in comparison to others due to ongoing warfare, lack of nutritional education and/or living in poverty.


The impact of malnutrition on organs in Figure 1 happens because there is deficiency in certain macronutrients and/or micronutrients, which are essential in the structure and functioning of the body. Another consequence of malnutrition is weight loss because there is depletion of fat and muscle mass in the body, leading to impaired muscle function.


Food deserts/swamps and malnutrition


Going back to food deserts/swamps, their impact on malnutrition can be drastic. For example, a review focusing on food insecurity (disrupted food intake/eating patterns due to low income or supplementary resources), suggested a link between malnutrition and food insecurity along with a possible association between malnutrition and gut microbiome being negatively altered, though more research is needed. 


Another review looking at food insecurity in both US adults and children discovered that in a food-insecure adult’s diet, they had less vegetables, fruits and dairy leading to reduced vitamins A and B6, calcium, magnesium and zinc. How do both reviews relate to food swamps/deserts? Well, populations who are food-insecure may be likely to live in areas where there is a lack of access to healthy foods (i.e. food swamps/deserts). 


Conclusion


Taking into account everything discussed in this article, it seems that governments in countries where food swamps/deserts are prevalent need to address this issue through effective policies. Otherwise, there could be a future where there is an increase in chronic diseases like malnutrition. There is even potential susceptibility to infectious diseases due to malfunctioning organs stemming from malnutrition.  


Written by Sam Jarada

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