A new study finds that many people have a deeply ingrained belief that healthy food is invariably more expensive than unhealthy food; so much so, in fact, that this “healthy = expensive” theory has a significant impact on our ideas of health and our food choices. It also makes us more susceptible to consumer manipulation.
For example, people in one study believed that eye health was a more important issue for them after being told about an expensive but unfamiliar food ingredient that would help protect their vision. However, when the same ingredient was described as being relatively cheap, people didn’t think the issue it treated – eye health – was that important.
“It’s concerning. The findings suggest that price of food alone can impact our perceptions of what is healthy and even what health issues we should be concerned about,” said Rebecca Reczek, Ph.D., co-author of the study and professor of marketing at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.
While there are certainly categories of food where healthy is more expensive such as some organic and gluten-free products, it is not necessarily true all the time, said Reczek. Still, this study wasn’t designed to investigate the true relationship between healthy foods and price – just people’s perceptions of that relationship.
The researchers conducted five experiments, all with different participants. In one, the subjects were told about a new product called “granola bites,” which was given a health grade of either A- or C. The participants were then asked to rate how expensive the product would be.
Participants who were told the health grade was A- thought the granola bites would be more expensive than did those who were told the grade was C.
In another experiment, a group of participants were given the task of ordering lunch for a co-worker. Half the people were told the co-worker wanted a healthy lunch, while the others weren’t give any specific instructions.
Participants were given a choice of two different chicken wraps to choose for their co-worker, one called the Chicken Balsamic Wrap and the other called the Roasted Chicken Wrap. The ingredients were listed for both.
The key was that for some participants the Chicken Balsamic Wrap was listed as more expensive, and for others the Roasted Chicken Wrap cost more. Regardless of which was actually healthier, when participants were asked to pick the healthiest option, they were much more likely to choose the more expensive chicken wrap.
In another experiment, participants were given four trail mix options, all at different price points. One of the choices was called the “Perfect Vision Mix.” Some participants saw the mix touted as “Rich in Vitamin A for eye health.” Others saw the line “Rich in DHA for eye health.”
While both Vitamin A and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are indeed good for eye health, the researchers had previously determined that few people are familiar with DHA.
Some participants saw the trail mix listed at an average price, while others saw it listed at a premium price above the other three trail mixes. They were then asked about their perceptions of the key ingredient in the trail mix, either Vitamin A or DHA.
When the ingredient was Vitamin A, people thought it was equally important in a healthy diet, regardless of the price. But if the ingredient was DHA, participants believed it to be a more important part of a healthy diet if it was in the expensive trail mix than when it was in the average-priced mix.
“People are familiar with Vitamin A, so they feel they can judge its value without any price cues,” Reczek said. “But people don’t know much about DHA, so they go back to the lay theory that expensive must be healthier.”
Furthermore, when participants were told DHA helped prevent macular degeneration, they thought this was a more important health issue when the trail mix with DHA was more expensive. When the DHA product was listed at an average price, however, they were less concerned about macular degeneration.
This effect was not seen with people who were told the trail mix had Vitamin A – again, probably because it was more familiar to the participants, Reczek said.
While these results may be concerning for consumers, Reczek said there is a remedy.
“We need to be aware of our expensive-equals-healthy bias and look to overcome it by searching out objective evidence,” Reczek said.
“It makes it easier for us when we’re shopping to use this lay theory, and just assume we’re getting something healthier when we pay more. But we don’t have to be led astray. We can compare nutrition labels and we can do research before we go to the grocery store. We can use facts rather than our intuition.”
Their results appear online in the Journal of Consumer Research.
Source: Ohio State University