Some Canadians are paying between double and nearly six times the average price for healthy foods, depending on where in the country they live, according to a report from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

The report found price discrepancies across the country and within provinces. It also found many Canadians have difficulty accessing healthy foods at their local grocery store.

The report, entitled "Heart and Stroke Foundation's Annual Report on Canadians' Health," discovered:

  • A wide cost variation across the country for fruits and vegetables. For example, six apples cost $0.90 in Peterborough, Ont., but $7.64 in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.
  • Whole-wheat pasta in Dawson City, Yukon, can cost between four and six times what it costs in Barrie, Ont. ($11.37 in Dawson City compared to $2 in Barrie).
  • Milk, cheese and meat costs twice in the communities with the highest prices than in the communities with the lowest (the average low price being between $4 and $6 and the highest price ranging from $8 to almost $14).

The high cost and low availability of a variety of healthy foodstuffs puts Canadians at risk of a number of health problems, according to Heart and Stroke Foundation CEO Sally Brown.

"Those risk factors will decrease dramatically if you eat a healthy diet," Brown told CTV Ottawa on Monday. "Because healthy foods do a number of things: you lose weight, it stabilizes your blood pressure, it lowers your cholesterol and it manages your blood sugar. So, we need people to eat healthier, and if we're going to price food in certain communities out of reach, Canadians aren't going to."

According to Brown, 25 per cent of cases of heart disease, stroke and other ailments could be prevented if Canadians were eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains and lean meats and dairy products.

For the study, Foundation staff recruited 66 volunteer shoppers across Canada who were asked to purchase a list of foods based on Health Canada's National Nutritious Food Basket. The basket was created to aid health officials in evaluating Canadians' accessibility to healthy foods.

The volunteers were asked to choose items from the list to feed a family of four for one week. They shopped at a national or regional grocery chain in their community and were given a list of national food brands to choose from.

Not all of the volunteers could find a wide array of healthy foods.

For example, the volunteers found that dried beans and frozen spinach were unavailable in one out of three grocery stores. One in five stores did not have unbreaded frozen fish, while only 10 per cent of stores carried fresh chicken legs.

In contrast, the prices of unhealthy snacks such as pop, chips and cookies varied little across the country, and were also widely available.

Not surprisingly, a survey of more than 1,400 Canadians contained in the report found that 42 per cent occasionally go without a particular type of food because of the cost.

The survey also found that:

  • Nearly one in five Canadians forgo at least one type of food almost every time they shop because of the cost.
  • Almost one-quarter of Canadians have to go without lean meat and poultry, while one in five Canadians have to forgo fruit and vegetables.

It is unclear why food prices and availability vary so widely across the country, Brown said.

"We don't know why it happens," she said. "That's why the Heart and Stroke Foundation is saying we really need governments, the food industry and others to research why these prices are so variable."

According to the survey's results, many Canadians feel the government has a role to play in making nutritious foods more accessible.

The survey found that 86 per cent of Canadians believe the government should regulate the price of nutritious foods to ensure that they are equally affordable across the country, while 84 per cent believe government should raise the income of lower-income Canadians.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation agrees, calling on the government to monitor and report on the cost of staple foods included in Health Canada's food basket, research price inconsistencies across the country and improve programs that deliver nutritious foods to isolated northern communities.

"If governments and provinces can regulate the cost of alcohol," the Foundation's Dr. Beth Abramson told CTV Newsnet, "surely we should be able to find some way to make sure Canadians have accessibility to healthy food choices."