WHETHER the skyrocketing prices of red onions are caused by incompetence, greed, failed harvest or any combination of these factors is somehow beyond the point: the prices have long reached grotesque levels. At the public market in my neighborhood — the biggest market in the biggest sitio in Cebu City's biggest barangay (village) — 1 kilogram of red onion or "bombay" as it is called here, has been selling at P750 to P800 in recent weeks. Last December 13, the price was P380 — an all-time high then, but it went up to P600 per kilogram and then P800. Needless to say, my household stopped buying red onions and will buy again only when the price has become reasonable.

The local supermarket — known for its very competitive prices — also seems to have stopped selling red onions. Probably nobody is crazy enough to pay that much for a nonessential food item. The same supermarket incidentally has a Spanish wine on its shelves that sells at just above P200. Quercetin (stress on the second syllable), the plant pigment that red onions are rich in, is found in red wine as well, and now red wine seems a cheaper source of such nutrients.

And that's the thing. While red onions may be one of the most common ingredients in our food, it isn't essential — at least that's what I thought. We add it to a dish for flavor without realizing how nutritious it actually is, especially if consumed raw. Thus, due to its quercetin, the "lowly red onion" has anti-inflammatory abilities, can bring down cholesterol, increase insulin levels, is anti-cancerous — and is good for brain health. Quercetin is an antioxidant and it "could lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease and other degenerative diseases of the brain," according to the website www.webmd.com. A red onion a day may not keep the doctor away, but it definitely helps.

Quercetin is present in citrus fruits, broccoli, apples, capers, dill, black tea, green tea, tomato, dark grapes, dark berries such as cranberries, blackberries and blueberries, and as mentioned above, red wine. Many of these foods aren't common in the Philippines. This makes the onion price scandal a crime against public health. Ordinary Filipinos have been deprived of a cheap and traditional source of important nutrients. It's not so much a matter of "making head rolls" but making sure that this will not happen again. The government needs to fix the system once and for all.

If this could happen to something as trivial as red onions, it could happen to other food products as well. Last year, we saw sugar price increases lead to suspension of operations of soft drink plants. While the war in Ukraine has driven up prices of almost all commodities, the peculiar circumstances in the Philippines — structural defects in our system of getting produce from the farms to the consumers, outdated production methods, underdeveloped infrastructure and postharvest facilities — are to blame for skyrocketing prices of sugar and onions that hit the already hard-hit Filipino consumer. Note that the 2022 fourth-quarter SWS (Social Weather Stations) survey on self-rated poverty shows that only 19 percent of Filipino families don't feel poor. Four in five families rate themselves poor or borderline-poor.

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When prices of basic consumer goods climb to grotesque heights within a very short time and wreak havoc on tight budgets, the nutritional status and health of Filipino families are affected. The government should be concerned. The poor state of public health, which is causing the drain of PhilHealth scarce resources on such costly procedures as, for example, dialysis, should alarm us all. Millions of Filipinos struggle with chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, kidney failure and diabetes at a relatively young age. While diet and lifestyle could be seen as something of personal choice, the government cannot ignore the overall negative impact on the economy of the poor health that comes with unhealthy diets. Reduced learning ability of malnourished children prevents them from reaching their full potential — this is a loss not only to the child and his or her family, but the entire country. The person who isn't able to enjoy a healthy diet will be less productive, have more sick days and is likely to suffer premature death. This is a tragedy to the individual, his or her dependents — and the entire country.

I stopped buying onions, but I regret considering its nutritional value. I couldn't imagine the famous Cebuano kinilaw without onions but believe it or not, the red onion at the local market here is now more expensive than a kilogram of pork lechon, another of Cebu's famous treats. Now, lechon isn't something that we eat that often — that would be nutritional suicide — but the "bombay" is as common in the kitchen as salt, soy sauce and vinegar. Is this a warning of worse things to come?