TORONTO - The cost of healthy food items varies widely across the country, with some communities paying double and sometimes even six times more for the same product than others, a report released Monday by the Heart and Stroke Foundation suggests.
The prices of foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains and lean meat ranged greatly, even from city to nearby city and within urban areas as well. Food prices in Scarborough, in the east end of Toronto, were lower than in the economically challenged Jane and Finch area in the city's northwest.
Paradoxically there was little variation in the cost of snack foods - items like cookies, potato chips and soft drinks that should be consumed in moderation.
The heart health charity said some Canadians are forgoing food items that should be part of a healthy diet because of high prices. And it suggested governments should take steps to help level the playing field in the pricing of such foods.
"Eating healthy is a key factor in preventing heart disease and as a cardiologist I counsel my patients on this daily. This report by the foundation should be a wake-up call that healthy eating is potentially out of reach for many Canadians," said Dr. Beth Abramson, a foundation spokesperson.
She and others wondered why governments can charge a consistent price for alcohol across a province, for instance, but a staple like milk costs twice as much in Wolfville, N.S., as it does in the Vancouver area.
The findings on the prices of healthy foods were the subject of this year's annual heart health report card from the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
The foundation bolstered its argument with data from a 1,400-person national poll that suggested 47 per cent of Canadians occasionally go without fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grain and dairy products or lean meat or fish because they cost too much.
The Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors questioned the way the foundation gathered its pricing data, saying it may have painted an unduly negative picture of the affordability of healthy food in Canada.
"I don't want to disparage or get into a my-data's-better-than-their-data type conversation. It's just, to use an analogy - a pollster certainly wouldn't base conclusions on 66 people," said council vice-president Dave Wilkes, referring to volunteer shoppers who collected the data for the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
"We don't want to leave Canadians with the impression that healthy choices are not affordable. Because they certainly are. Canadians benefit from one of the most affordable grocery baskets in the developed world."
The foundation asked volunteers in 66 cities to go shopping in October 2008, giving them a list of healthy foods adapted from Health Canada's national nutritious food basket. The food basket was designed to feed a family of four for a week.
There is no single grocery store chain that sells across the country. So the shoppers were instructed to buy from a national or regional grocery chain but not a discount grocery store.
Wilkes said leaving the food prices offered by discount grocery stories out of the analysis skewed the findings upwards. He noted that in some markets, 50 per cent or more of the retail grocery sales occur in discount grocery stores.
"We share their goals of providing accurate information on that (the price of healthy foods)," he said. "We're just not certain that this study achieves those goals because of some of the way that the data was collected."
Where applicable, the shoppers were instructed to buy specified national brands to ensure that the analysis was based on a comparison of similar items. Selected foodstuffs included six medium apples, a bag of potatoes, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, one per cent milk, cheddar cheese, lean ground beef and peanut butter.
The price of apples varied wildly, from 90 cents in Peterborough, Ont., to $7.94 in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. But they were even expensive in some places below the tree line. In Calgary, the six apples cost $5.02 but up the highway in Edmonton, they were $1.71.
While remote Northern communities were often among the costliest places to shop for food, they weren't the only places paying at the high end of the food pricing scale.
In Thunder Bay, Ont., 520 grams of cheddar cheese cost $14.61, but in Barrie, Ont., the same item cost $4.99. One kilogram of lean ground meat went for $13.21 in Ottawa, but cost $4.74 in Montreal, less than two hours drive away.
That last example really raised eyebrows, said Marco Di Buono, director of research for the Heart and Stroke Foundation's Ontario chapter. "It was cheaper to buy lean ground beef in the North than it was in Ottawa. That kind of price variation is inexplicable."
The foundation noted that the situation was even worse in some remote First Nations and Inuit communities. In fact, prices from Bearskin Lake reserve in Northern Ontario were not included in the national analysis because many of the items were either extremely expensive or simply unavailable.
Healthy choices were often more expensive than less healthy alternatives. For instance, margarine with trans fats cost on average $2.79 compared to $3.29 for trans fat-free margarine. Brown rice was $5.09 compared to white rice at $4.71.
Kim Raine, a nutritionist and obesity expert at the University of Alberta, was dismayed by the findings.
"It's really easy for a nutritionist like myself to say 'The most important thing you can do for your diet is to eat more fruits and vegetables,"' she said.
"But if those fruits and vegetables aren't available or if they're much more expensive than your budget allows, that's a really impractical recommendation."