Processed food was linked to 1970s inflation. Today’s health-savvy Canadians are finding other cheap options

Shoppers buying groceries in Loblaws’ newly-opened ‘No-Frills’ supermarket on Jul. 5, 1978.Steve Patriquen/The Globe and Mail

In 1979, cheaper generic brands had only just hit the grocery shelves, were substitutes like Diet Coke starting to hit the market, and a basket of food worth $10 in the early seventies increased to a cost of $17.50.

From an inflation perspective, it wasn’t a very different situation in the grocery aisles from right now. But food academics say a change in culture, demographics and society’s emphasis on healthy eating means that people will adapt to rising food costs in a different way this time around. If inflation in the seventies was about embracing cheap processed goods, academics believe today’s consumers will try to keep eating healthy food while reducing waste.

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor specializing in food distribution, security and safety at Dalhousie University, says the first thing that may come to mind with seventies budget food is Kraft Dinner, highly processed meat products such as Spam, and other canned or frozen goods.

“Back then, local food wasn’t important, nutrition wasn’t as much of an emphasis, dilemmas around processing foods wasn’t as front and centre, so it was a very different context,” said Dr. Charlebois, who also said the variety of goods available now is a world apart from four decades ago. He estimated a grocery store in 1980 might have had 3,000 unique products. Today, that number is probably closer to 15,000.

“People are living healthy lives, we live a long time, the science has come a long way and our diet is much more internationalized than before,” Dr. Charles said.

Back in 1978, Nell Holland told The Washington Post that her family was eating more beans, cornbread, hot dogs and spaghetti, and eating meat only twice per week. “A big roast beef is out of the question,” she told a reporter.

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For those on an ultralow budget, Charlebois said there are three key products where the price has barely changed for the past 20 years: peanut butter, tofu and bananas. “For people who are struggling and looking for cheap nutritional sources, bananas are always going to win,” Dr. Charles said.

But data from a recent Dalhousie University poll of 5,000 Canadians in September show that inflation these days is affecting how people search for deals and cheaper brands, rather than different kinds of food altogether. Twenty-one per cent said they bought more private-label products (grocery store brands such as President’s Choice) rather than name brand, and 20 per cent said they bought more “buy tonight” deals – food that is nearing its expiration date.

The largest changes didn’t have to do with shopping at all, though – 40 per cent of commenters said they were simply trying to waste less of the groceries they buy.

Cutting waste is top of mind for Sarah Heidt when she shops and cooks for her husband and two kids, and she said it’s the main way she’s able to keep her family healthy when budgeting for food.

“It’s definitely not easy,” said Ms. Heidt, who works from home as an immigration consultant in Aurora, Ont.

“We eat 99 per cent at home … and I don’t want to sacrifice feeding my family good healthy meals.”

Just before the pandemic, Ms. Heidt said a visit from her Iranian mother-in-law taught her different ways to be resourceful when cooking. The knowledge has been something she leans on during high inflation.

Now, if she buys a rotisserie chicken at the grocery store, she uses the leftover bones to make her own chicken stock. When cooking with meat, she’ll add lentils to the mixture to help stretch how many meals a portion of beef can create. And she has stopped buying canned beans, opting for dried beans because they are much cheaper. While those tactics may take longer, she said, relying on her Instant Pot helps cut down the amount of time and effort involved.

She also enjoyed occasionally shopping at farmers markets and Costco in the past, but now only shops at stores that can price match.

Ms. Heidt said the price of rice has risen, so she cooks more meals with potatoes instead. On this front, there are similarities with the past. Margaret Robison told The Post in 1978 she was cooking “more potatoes than usual.”

Ms. Heidt also often buys frozen instead of fresh goods, and is careful to make sure nothing is wasted when she does purchase fresh produce and meat. All her decisions are based around keeping meals healthy and balanced, she said.

The tactics are a far cry from norms in the seventies. The Canadian Press in 1978 reported that salt, sugar and fat in diets had risen as inflation hammered Canadians.

Today, there are still options for people who don’t want to spend as much time in the kitchen to rehydrate beans and make their own stocks.

Michael Widener, an associate professor in transportation and health at the University of Toronto, said anything with a long shelf life will be more resistant to inflation. While that includes obvious products such as frozen meat and canned goods, Dr. Widener also pointed out that fruits such as apples, which last relatively longer than other produce, will be more resistant to change. Any produce that is generally sourced locally will also be more stable in price.

“Different crops that are produced in Canada will be a little easier for the supply chain to move into our grocery stores, versus ones imported from places like South America or elsewhere,” Dr. Widener said.

People looking for alternative protein sources to meat could also eat more lentils, beans or eggs. Dr. Charlebois said that while egg prices are rising fast, they’re still much cheaper than meat.