Cost, not nutrition, now top concern for growing number of shoppers: report – National

Canadians are increasingly heading straight for cheaper foods rather than considering the nutritional value of the groceries as they grapple with the rising cost of living, according to a report released Wednesday.

A new survey from the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University shows how Canadians’ shopping habits have shifted, after more than a year of high food inflation made trips to the grocery store more costly.

The Caddle polling of more than 5,500 Canadians in September shows that almost two thirds (64.1 per cent) of respondents said they’ve changed the way they buy groceries over the past year, with some 86.4 per cent saying they’re now more price-conscious.

Some 45.5 per cent of Canadians say they’re now prioritizing cost over nutritional value when grocery shopping to a greater degree than last year. Meanwhile, roughly three in five Canadians say they’re worried about compromising on nutrition due to high costs, worrying about the long-term impacts on their health.

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“It’s actually quite concerning,” says Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab.

“There are a lot of people out there who feel vulnerable when they go to the grocery store.”

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Food inflation has routinely outpaced the overall price pressures in Canada during the ongoing inflationary bout.

While the annual price growth for groceries cooled to 6.9 per cent  in August from double-digit highs this time last year, trips to the grocery stores remain a pain point for Canadians squeezed between higher interest rates and an overall inflation rate of 4.0 per cent — still double the Bank of Canada’s targets.

Charlebois notes that it’s not necessarily an either-or scenario when it comes to eating well and saving money, with some affordable foods also providing plenty of nutritional benefit. But today’s inflationary environment has created a “frugal market,” he explains, where Canadians are increasingly looking at the price tag first and the nutritional information second.

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“It just creates a new generation of people just looking strictly at price. And when you shop for food, it’s not necessarily always a good thing,” he says.

Lower-income Canadians were the demographic most likely to make trade-offs in the face of food inflation, with a little more than half of respondents in that salary range indicating they were prioritizing cost over nutrition.

Millennials (those born 1981-1996) were the most likely to say they were worried about the trade-offs between nutrition and cost, with 68.6 per cent of respondents holding this view.

Charlebois notes that while Gen Z Canadians might still be living at home in greater numbers, Millennials are “on their own” and are increasingly starting families with young mouths to feed.

“Millennials are probably the hardest-hit generation right now as a result of higher food prices,” he says.

Is it better to go more or less often to save at the grocery store?

In addition to making compromises on nutrition, Canadians are also changing where they shop and how much food they buy.

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Three in five shoppers said they’ve visited discount stores more often in the past year; roughly half say they’ve bought from supermarkets more frequently; and 47.3 per cent say they’ve shopped at dollar stores more than last year.

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Almost half (49.2 per cent) of respondents to the Caddle poll say they’ve reduced the amount of meat or other protein sources they buy because of higher costs.

Some 79.1 per cent of shoppers say they’re wasting less food at home than they did a year ago, while almost half (49.7 per cent) say they’ve considered growing their own food to offset costs.

Charlebois says the past year-plus of rapidly-rising grocery prices means Canadians are “valuing” food more, and they’re now adopting behaviours to stretch their food dollar as far as possible.

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The polling also shows that Canadians are changing up how often they go to the grocery store, with some heading out more often to try to snag last-minute deals. Some 52.8 per cent of shoppers have explored using “food-rescue” apps, while 41.4 per cent are actively looking for “enjoy tonight” deals — marked-down foods that typically come with a shorter shelf life.

Charlebois says there are a couple different schools of thought on how often shoppers should head to the store if they’re trying to save money.

On one hand, going every two or three days allows for more deal-hunting rather than going once a week or less, but he notes this is an option that’s typically only open to people who live close to a grocery store. One in four (26.5 per cent) of respondents said they were taking this approach more regularly.

Charlebois says that buying in bulk is also an option to save money in the long run, but that approach tends to be more expensive up front and requires a great deal of storage space that might not be open to every shopper struggling to make ends meet. The polling shows 41.5 per cent of respondents are adopting these strategies more often.

“It really depends (on) who you are and what your situation is,” Charlebois says.

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