Panorama 2022 analyzes the cost of healthy diets and warns that Latin America and the Caribbean currently has the highest cost of a healthy diet compared to the rest of the world. In addition, the publication highlights the challenges to improving its affordability, as well as the relevance of addressing the high cost of this type of diet in the region and countries to address the rising numbers of hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition in all its forms.
The Regional Overview is a joint publication of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO); the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). The report presents a yearly update on the state of food security and nutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Regional Overview 2022 analyses the cost and affordability of healthy diets and highlights the challenges the region faces in improving their affordability and their association with hunger and malnutrition in all its forms, as well as policy responses.
Latin America and the Caribbean has the highest cost of a healthy diet compared to other regions of the world, reaching US$3.89 per person per day, while the global average is US$3.54. As a result, 131 million people cannot access this diet.
In 2020, 22 percent of the region’s people could not afford a healthy diet. In the Caribbean, 52 percent of the population did not have access to a healthy diet due to its high cost; in Mesoamerica, the figure corresponds to 27.8 percent and in South America to 18.5 percent.
The joint publication of the five UN agencies refers to the fundamental link between diet quality and food security and nutrition. It presents observations on how the lack of economic access to a healthy diet is related to different forms of malnutrition, such as undernourishment, stunting and overweight in children under five, anemia in women between 15 and 49 years of age, and obesity among the adult population.
In addition, the Regional Overview 2022 provides evidence on applying public policies aimed at production, markets and trade, and food consumption to contribute to the affordability of healthy diets.
UN Report: 131 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean cannot access a healthy diet
The region has the highest cost for a healthy diet compared to the rest of the world.
Cost and affordability of a healthy diet
A healthy diet guarantees to meet a person's needs for energy, macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates with dietary fiber) and essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), considering gender, age, level of physical activity and physiological state. A healthy diet should contain all group foods in a balanced and diverse way, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains; foods of animal origin; legumes, nuts, and seeds; oils and unsaturated fats.
The composition of a healthy diet varies according to food availability in countries and territories. Still, there is a consensus that it should contain a minimum of 400 grams of fruits and vegetables per day (equivalent to five servings). The energy intake of total fats should be less than 30% of total energy intake (of which saturated fats should not contribute more than 10 percent of calories), preferring unsaturated fats and avoiding the intake of trans fats. In addition, the intake of added sugars should not exceed 10 percent of total energy intake, and salt intake should be less than 5 grams per day.
The cost of a healthy diet is defined as the cost of the most affordable locally available food to meet the energy needs of 2330 kcal/day and fulfill nutrient requirements. It is the sum of the cheapest foods available in each country from the six food groups identified in a healthy diet: fruits, vegetables, starchy staples such as cereals and tubers, animal-source foods, legumes, nuts and seeds, and oils and fats.
The cost of a healthy diet in our region reaches US$3.89 per person per day, while the world average is US$3.54. In the Caribbean it reaches USD 4.23, followed by South America and Mesoamerica, with USD 3.61 and USD 3.47, respectively.
Several factors explain the high cost of a healthy diet in the region. First, nutritious foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and certain animal-source foods tend to be more expensive than starchy staples, such as cereals and tubers.
In addition, food prices depend, among other things, on how production and the supply chain adapt to increasing resource constraints resulting from the economic slowdown, conflicts and climate change.
Latin America and the Caribbean has faced an economic slowdown and contraction, leading to an increase in poverty between 2019 and 2021, and an increase in food inflation. These factors, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, increased the cost of healthy diets in the region between 2019 and 2020. Currently, the conflict in Ukraine is putting further pressure on the already high cost of healthy diets in Latin America and the Caribbean, due to its impact on fuel, logistics chains, and the price of food and fertilizers.
Affordability measures the percentage and number of people who cannot afford to pay the cost of a healthy diet at the national, regional or global level. A healthy diet is considered unaffordable when its cost exceeds 52 percent of income per person, which is the maximum proportion of income that population should spend on food.
This version of the Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition shows that the higher the levels of poverty and inequality, the lower the affordability of a healthy diet.
A healthy diet consists of fruits, vegetables, starchy staples, animal foods, legumes, nuts and seeds, and oils and fats. As local prices increase for any of these food groups, the cost of the healthy diet increases.
With the disruption of the production and logistics supply chain in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, international food prices increased, driven mainly by higher vegetable oil and grain prices, and continued to rise during 2021.
In March 2022, the international food price index reached the highest level ever recorded by the FAO food price index. Although international food prices have declined since April, they remain high.
The construction and design of policies aimed at contributing to the affordability of healthy diets should be oriented to the production, markets and trade, and consumption of nutritious foods.
Diversification and production of nutritious foods is a key element in any strategy designed to make healthy diets affordable for communities. Increased production of diverse and nutritious foods can be achieved through support for family farming and small-scale producers and the inclusion of these products in public procurement systems and food programs. This can increase producer incomes and reduce the cost of nutritious food for consumers, especially if shorter food supply chains are also encouraged.
On the supply side, transparency in information on prices, products and varieties produced and available for sale can enhance markets and trade as a facilitator of food security and nutrition.
The affordability of healthy diets for the most vulnerable population can also be improved with cash and in-kind food transfers, such as school feeding programs, food vouchers and/or cash transfers.
Policies designed and focused on food environments, such as front-of-pack nutrition labeling and taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, can discourage the consumption of energy-dense foods with minimal nutritional value, improving consumers' eating patterns and choices.
Food Security and nutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean
Hunger is a consequence of insufficient dietary energy consumption.
In this report, the term "hunger" is used as a synonym for undernourishment, defined as the condition of an individual whose usual food consumption is insufficient to provide the amount of dietary energy needed to maintain an everyday, active, and healthy life.
Undernourishment in the region has grown steadily even since before the COVID-19 pandemic. The prevalence of undernourishment increased by 57.4 percent between 2015 and 2021, or 20.6 million people, standing at 8.6 percent of the population in 2021, while the prevalence of undernourishment globally stands at 9.8 percent of the population in the same year. The prevalence of hunger in South America is 7.9 percent, 8.4 percent in Mesoamerica and 16.4 percent in the Caribbean.
Between 2019 and 2021, the increase in undernourishment in the region was 13.2 million people. When broken down by subregion, undernourishment increased most in South America (11 million people), followed closely by Mesoamerica (1.6 million people) and the Caribbean (0.6 million people).The latter subregion shows the highest prevalence of undernourishment (16.4 percent).
Although South America had the largest increase in this indicator, it continues to be the subregion with the lowest prevalence of hunger compared to the other subregions.
Food insecurity is defined as a lack of continued access to food, which reduces the quality of the diet, disrupts normal eating habits, and can negatively affect nutrition, health, and well-being. While severe food insecurity is the situation where people are likely to run out of food, suffer from hunger and, in the most extreme case, go for days without food, putting their health and well-being at serious risk.
The prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity is higher in Latin America and the Caribbean than globally. That is, while 29.3 percent of the global population faced moderate or severe food insecurity in 2021, in the region, the prevalence was 40.6 percent.
Between 2014 and 2021, the regional increase has also been more significant than at the global level. In the world food insecurity increased by 8.1 percentage points, while in the region this increase was 16 percentage points. Subsequently, between 2019 and 2021, the increase in food insecurity in Latin America and the Caribbean was 8.9 percentage points and in the world, 3.9 percentage points.A breakdown by subregion shows that in South America, moderate or severe food insecurity affected 40.9 percent of the population in 2021, while in Mesoamerica the prevalence was 34.1 percent. The figure is even higher in the Caribbean, where 64 percent of the population was moderately or severely food insecure, and of these, half (30.5 percent) experienced severe food insecurity.
As a result of reduced economic growth, the COVID-19 pandemic and its socioeconomic consequences, estimates show an increase in poverty, which is one of the main drivers of moderate and severe undernourishment and food insecurity in the region.
The slowdown in economic activity and the reduction in employment has led to increased poverty in the region. Between 2015 and 2019, poverty increased from 29.1 percent to 33 percent and, in the same period, extreme poverty increased from 8.8 percent to 13.1 percent. In addition, the increase in international food prices has had an impact on final consumer prices. Since 2020the increase in food inflation and employment reduction have increasingly reduced households' purchasing power, putting food security at risk.
Low-income households, which spend a significant part of their income on food, are forced to reduce - initially - the quality of their diet and then the quantity of food they consume, leading to an increase in food insecurity and undernourishment in the region. This situation affects vulnerable populations to a greater extent, such as women, who are disproportionately affected by poverty and food insecurity.
Malnutrition is an abnormal physiological condition caused by insufficient, unbalanced or excessive intake of macronutrients and/or micronutrients. Malnutrition includes undernutrition (stunting and wasting of children, and vitamin and mineral deficiencies), as well as overweight and obesity.
In 2020, the prevalence of stunting in children under five in Latin America and the Caribbean was 11.3 percent, approximately 10 percentage points below the global average. All subregions have made positive progress in reducing stunting. Between 2000 and 2020, South America reduced stunting by 41 percent, Mesoamerica by 35 percent and the Caribbean by 25 percent.
In contrast, 7.5 percent of children under five were overweight in 2020, almost two percentage points above the global average (5.7 percent). In South America and the Caribbean, overweight in children has increased over the last 20 years, while in Mesoamerica the problem has decreased since 2010.
Moreover, in the region, anemia affects 17.2 percent of women aged 15-49 years, a percentage significantly lower than the global average in 2019. In the Caribbean, however, almost 30 percent of women aged 15-49 years are affected by anemia.