High fruit and vegetable prices have started to take their toll on some of the most vulnerable groups in society, with those in low-income groups as well as young people under 25 saying they are increasingly having to cut back on fruit and veg because they can no longer afford them.

Fresh produce has experienced considerable retail price inflation, with fruit prices up 7.9% in the 12 months to December 2010 and veg prices up 2.9% over the same period [CPI].

This has meant value sales of fruit and veg have continued to grow, even though volume sales were actually down 0.1% in the past 12 months [Kantar 52w/e 20 February 2011].

Now new research by Mintel has revealed that nearly 70% of consumers across all age and income groups have noticed fruit and veg prices going up, with 26% of under-25s and 22% of those earning less than £15,500 a year claiming they had started to eat less because of cost.

Worryingly, families with young children were among the most likely to cut back, with 30% of those with children under five and 26% of those with children under 10 claiming they were reducing the amount they ate.

These shoppers are buying less fruit and veg even though supermarkets have boosted the affordability of fresh produce. Exclusive research for The Grocer by Assosia shows the big four and Waitrose were on average running nearly 40% more fresh produce promotions in 2010 than in 2008 when the recession hit, although the average saving offered to shoppers has fallen somewhat, by 9.6%.

At the same time, there have been some high-profile price reductions. At 77p per kg, bananas are now 20p cheaper in the multiples than they were a year ago [BrandView.co.uk], with many supermarkets also offering lower prices on other healthy staples such as cucumbers. However, some exotics, as well as grapes and cauliflower, are now a lot more expensive in the mults than last year.

Shoppers were cutting back on fruit and veg due to a combination of real price increases and a difficult-to-shift perception that fresh produce was "pricey", said Mintel food and drink ­analyst Amy Lloyd.

"Even though retailers are putting on more promotions to protect consumers from some price rises, there are some shoppers who just think fruit and veg is expensive," she said. "There's an increasing feeling among certain segments of the population that they are being priced out."

Part of the problem was that shoppers' perceptions of fruit and veg prices were often skewed by seasonality, added Nigel Jenney at the Fresh Produce Consortium. Few realised it was "normal" for produce prices to fluctuate throughout the year, meaning they sometimes placed too much emphasis on month-on-month changes even when prices were stable or only moderately up year-on-year.

"Some shoppers may perceive this as confusing, especially if they are used to buying processed food products, which tend to be more consistent in price," Jenney said. The ­average family spent just £4 on fresh produce a week, he added, "so even where we're talking about some modest price increases, we're hardly talking about significant amounts."

This week, Sainsbury's CEO Justin King revealed there had been a "quite ­dramatic" change in shopping habits since the start of the year, with shoppers cutting back by typically putting one fewer item in their weekly shop to avoid waste and save money.

Number of fruit & veg promotions since the start of the recession

2010 = 812
2009 = 549
2008 = 338
Change: 140.2%

2010 = 474
2009 = 406
2008 = 93
Change: 409.7%

2010 = 1,121
2009 = 1,035
2008 = 927
Change: 20.9%

2010 = 1,000
2009 = 910
2008 = 934
Change: 1.7%

2010 = 511
2009 = 800
2008 = 271
Change: 88.6%

Source: Assosia