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Russia: Declining Economy Causes Healthier Diet

Washington, 18 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - The U.S. Agriculture Department says declining Russian economy and falling wages have had one very positive impact on Russian citizens -- a better diet.

The Agriculture Department says in a report that people in Russia are eating healthier foods -- consuming more fruits, vegetables and grains, and less meat and dairy fat than before.

As importantly, it says that as incomes begin to recover, people are not returning to cheaper meats, but are demanding a better quality of foodstuffs.

The observations are contained in a report prepared by the department's Economic Research Service. Its findings are based on surveys and analysis done by Moscow's Center for Economic Analysis and the Russian Longitudinal Monitoring Survey (RLMS). The RLMS is a cooperative survey done by Russian and foreign survey research and nutrition experts that has been monitoring the economic and health status of Russia's population since 1992.

The report says that while many statistics are still highly suspect, it is clear that meat consumption in Russia has fallen significantly and the mix of meats consumed has changed considerably since the Soviet days.

Mostly that is because compared to 1990, a month's average salary in 1995 would buy only 70 percent as much beef and even less pork, but could buy nearly twice as much lower-fat poultry meat.

At the same time, the average 1995 salary in Russia could only buy 34 percent as much whole milk or 44 percent as much butter, but could buy much larger amounts of fruit.

"A month's salary bought only 69 kilograms of citrus fruit in 1990, versus 90 kilograms in 1995," said the report.

It adds that fresh fruit and vegetable prices have risen only moderately now that their production and marketing are largely in private hands.

As encouraging, the U.S. report says that while there are still serious dietary problems, particularly among the poor in Russia -- who are unable to adjust their diets to new prices and incomes -- the number of Russians below the poverty line dropped from about 26 percent to 22 percent in 1995.

There are disputes over the exact number of Russians who are officially under the poverty line, but the survey says it found that the amount of undernutrition among children under two years of age has been declining constantly from a peak of 16.3 percent in December of 1994 to 8.3 percent in October 1996.

The report says that in 1990, over 42 percent of energy in the Russian food supply was from fat, a figure that was often described as making the Russian diet "one of the richest in the world." But health experts say it was also one of the most unhealthy diets in the world. The Russian Institute of Nutrition is applauding the fact that by October, 1996, the percent of fat in the diets of all age groups had fallen below 30 percent as a "healthy development" given all the health problems associated with excessively fatty diets.

Russian citizens still don't eat enough peas, beans and grain products such as pasta, says the Russian institute. They are eating only 13 percent of the peas and beans recommended even though these products typically cost only 20 percent as much as the average sausage product, and pasta costs only 25 percent as much.

The U.S. Agriculture Department report says that peas and beans have virtually no fat and lots of energy, while the average Russian sausage product has 225 grams of fat per kilogram.

The report says high income Russians are already moving toward a diet more typical of Western Europe or the United States, eating less fats and more vegetables, fruits and grain products and that the rest of the population is indicating the same desire.

Partly, says the report, this is because lower inflation is allowing households to stop stockpiling staples and allowing people to begin focusing on the quality of the food they eat.