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In a new study, two-thirds of respondents refused to buy a particular fruit or vegetable, and one in four ate fewer fruits and vegetables in the past 12 months.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Soaring prices for fruits and vegetables are changing the way we shop and eat.

Consumers are eating less fresh produce and putting frozen vegetables and juice in their grocery carts instead, a new survey says.

Two-thirds of respondents refused to buy a particular fruit or vegetable, and one in four ate fewer fruits and vegetables in the past 12 months, according to the poll by University of Guelph's Food Institute and Dalhousie University.

"We were expecting consumers to have walked away from some produce as a result of higher prices, but not as high as" that, said Sylvain Charlebois, dean of Dalhousie's faculty of management.

He called the results "a bit alarming," because nutritionally there are few substitutes for fresh fruit and vegetables.

Prices for fresh produce are up by more than 10 per cent in the past year, according to Statistics Canada, outpacing the overall food inflation rate of 3 per cent. The rise is driven by a persistent drought in California, which supplies $2.4-billion worth of Canada's agri-food purchases, and a low dollar that makes imports pricey.

Canada relies on imports for 80 per cent of the fruits and vegetables Canadians eat. This leaves consumers at the mercy of the inflationary effect of a low dollar, said Prof. Charlebois.

Leading the rise in prices are apples, which are up by 23 per cent in the 12 months ending in April. Cauliflower famously soared in price over the winter to as much as $8 a head in some regions, but has come back to earth recently. Still, fresh vegetables have risen in price by more than 15 per cent, while the broad consumer price index sits at just 1.7 per cent, according to Statistics Canada's April figures.

Almost half of the people polled said they didn't buy cauliflower because it was too expensive. More than one in four said they eschewed broccoli and 22 per cent said they stopped buying lettuce. Apples, tomatoes and cucumbers also made the too-pricey to eat list.

Not surprisingly, the poll found people with lower incomes were more likely to change their buying habits as a result of higher prices. However, Prof. Charlebois noted that households with lower incomes were more likely to substitute fruit juice for real fruit, a nutritionally poor choice. People with higher incomes were more likely to substitute more nutritious frozen produce, he said.

"As a country we are vulnerable [to food inflation], but the survey shows some consumers are more vulnerable than others," he said.

However, there are signs some parts of the country are seeing an increase in greenhouse projects built to supply the domestic market with produce that is typically imported, he said.