It's January, which means many people across the country are swapping in their cookie plates for healthier options. When you visit the grocery store, how do you determine what's the "healthier" option between two similar items? Do you always look at the ingredients listed, or does price quickly help determine what you think is the healthier choice?
A team of researchers have found a pattern in how consumers view expensive foods: People falsely think costly food is healthier and that healthy food is costly — even if there is no evidence to suggest so.
In five separate, but related, studies — co-authored by Rebecca Reczek of Ohio State, Kelly Haws of Vanderbilt University, and Kevin Sample of the University of Georgia — the researchers aimed to explore whether consumers need to spend more money to eat healthy foods. One of the findings, published online in the Journal of Consumer Research, suggests that consumers correlate healthful eating with higher costs.
"It's concerning," said Reczek, professor of marketing at The Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, in a university release. "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."
One study, for example, provided the subjects with a new food item called "granola bites" and an accompanying health grade of either A- or C. They were then asked to anticipate how much the product would cost. Participants under the impression that the granola bites had a health grade of A- thought the product would cost more than those who were told the item had a health grade of C.
In a separate study, participants similarly rated how healthy they thought a breakfast cracker was after being provided a price. Subjects who were quoted a higher price rated the item to be healthier than those who were told the cracker cost less.
Another study was able to see how subjects behave when given facts. Here, participants were given a hypothetical scenario where they were asked by a coworker to order a healthy lunch for them. The subjects were given two choices — chicken balsamic wrap and roasted chicken wrap — on a computer screen with an accompanying ingredient list. For some subjects, the chicken balsamic wrap was listed at a higher price, and for others the roasted chicken wrap was. The study found that subjects opted for the more expensive chicken wrap when prompted to select the healthiest option.
"People don't just believe that healthy means more expensive — they're making choices based on that belief," Reczek said.
According to Reczek, some healthier foods (like organic and gluten-free items) are truly more expensive, but this is not necessarily the case with all healthy foods. Fortunately there is a solution, and it lies in the consumer being informed.
"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."
Read more: The Strange Effects of Thinking Healthy Food is Costlier from The Ohio State University