Are expensive foods better for you? That depends who you ask. According to new research, consumers believe higher-priced foods are healthier than cheap eats, even when there is no supporting evidence.
While this may sound harmless, the results prove otherwise. Not only does this help marketers charge more for products that are publicized as healthy, but consumers are less likely to believe a product is healthy if it doesn’t cost more, researchers say.
The price of food even influences what health issues we worry about. For example, one study revealed that people thought eye health was more important for them when told about an expensive food ingredient that could protect their vision. If the same ingredient is low-cost, people don’t think it’s as important.
“It’s concerning,” says Rebecca Reczek, co-author of the study and professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. “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.”
Reczek conducted the study with Kelly Haws of Vanderbilt University and Kevin Sample of the University of Georgia. Their results appear online in the Journal of Consumer Research.
They conducted the study to evaluate the lay theory that we must pay more to eat healthily. A lay theory is a common-sense explanation people use to make sense of everyday social behavior, whether or not it is true. In this case, they explored this notion that healthy foods are expensive.
Reczek said messages consistent with this theory are all around us. One example she gives is “The Whole Paycheck,” a nickname given to Whole Foods, which considers itself “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store.”
Of course there are certain types of food that are indeed more expensive, such as some gluten-free or organic products, says Reczek. But it is certainly not true all the time. However, the purpose of the study was not to examine the relationship between healthy food and price, but people’s perception of that relationship.
The researchers led five related studies, each with different participants. In one, participants were given information on a new product called “granola bites,” with a health grade of A- or C. They were then asked to rate the product on how expensive it would be. Participants identified the granola bites with a health grade of A- as more expensive than the bites with a C grade.
So, could the idea — that healthy foods must cost more — influence how people act? In the next study, a new group of participants were asked to imagine they were ordering lunch for a co-worker. Half were told the co-worker wanted a healthy lunch while the others were given no instructions.
They were given a choice between two chicken wraps — a Chicken Balsamic Wrap and a Roasted Chicken Wrap. The ingredients were listed for both. The key factor was that for some participants the Chicken Balsamic Wrap was shown as more expensive, and for others the Roasted Chicken Wrap cost more. The results revealed that when asked to choose a healthier option they were much more likely to choose the more expensive wrap.
“People don’t just believe that healthy means more expensive – they’re making choices based on that belief,” Reczek said.
The findings continued to intrigue researchers with each subsequent study.
In the final study, participants were asked to review a product with the brand slogan “Healthiest Protein Bar on the Planet.” Some were told the product would cost $0.99 and others were told it would be $4. The bar would compete against other products that averaged $2 per bar. They were then given the opportunity to read reviews of the product before giving their own evaluation.
The conclusion showed that participants read more reviews when believing the bar cost $0.99 than compared to costing $4.
“People just couldn’t believe that the ‘healthiest protein bar on the planet’ would cost less than the average bar,” Reczek said. “They had to read more to convince themselves this was true. They were much more willing to accept that the healthy bar would cost twice as much as average.”
Now, if you’re thinking you’ve spent way too much on being healthy, Reczek said there may be a solution.
“We need to be aware of our expensive-equals-healthy bias and look to overcome it by searching out objective evidence,” Reczek said. “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.”