Why We Pay Too Much for 'Healthy' Food

Why We Pay Too Much for 'Healthy' Food

Why you should care

Healthy doesn’t always mean expensive — and vice versa. 

Between Queen Bey’s vegan diet and Whole Foods’ nickname, “Whole Paycheck,” it’s hard not to conclude that eating healthy means burning a hole in your wallet. But beyond some gluten-free and organic items, healthy food doesn’t always cost more.

A recent Journal of Consumer Research study, however, suggests that:

A healthy-equals-expensive association shapes not only what we view as healthy food but also what we buy.

In addition, we may apply this association to situations where it doesn’t hold up. It may even dictate which health conditions we consider important. “The media has perpetuated this idea of healthy being more expensive,” says Kelly Haws of Vanderbilt University, who led the study. Consumers should “take the time to think a little more deeply about whether those benefits are real.”

Haws and her colleagues ran a series of experiments that each included 100 to 200 participants. In the first experiment, researchers told one group that a new product, granola bites, had received a health grade of A- and another group that it had received a grade of C. Participants in the first group thought the granola bites cost more than those in the second group. Next, the researchers investigated whether consumers not only use health information to predict price, but vice versa. They told one group of participants that a breakfast cracker cost 25 cents and another that it cost $2. Sure enough, the latter group rated the cracker as healthier.

When we make quick decisions, like deciding what to buy, we rely on intuition and unambiguous cues, like price.

In another experiment, participants evaluated four trail mixes, including “perfect vision mix,” which came with one of two claims: “rich in vitamin A for eye health” or “rich in DHA for eye health.” The participants who were assigned the Vitamin A mix that was more expensive than the other mixes thought vitamin A was just as important to a healthy diet as the participants who received the Vitamin A mix that cost about the same as the other mixes. But among participants who were assigned the vision mix with DHA — which participants were less familiar with — those who saw the vision mix listed as more expensive rated it as more important. When the researchers told the DHA group that DHA prevented age-related blindness, those who saw that the vision mix cost more also rated this condition as a more important health concern.

In other words, when consumers encounter an unfamiliar ingredient, they’re more likely to draw from the healthy-expensive belief to infer the ingredient’s importance to overall health — which Haws finds “spooky.” Although vitamin A and DHA are both important for eye health, the study’s findings could extend to dubious claims about another unfamiliar ingredient.

Participants in another experiment rated a product with the slogan “healthiest protein bar on the planet.” Haws’ team told them the bar cost either 99 cents or $4, while other protein bars in the study cost $2 on average. Those who were told the bar cost 99 cents read significantly more product reviews — suggesting that when food marketed as healthy has a low price tag, consumers are more likely to doubt the health claim and seek more evidence to confirm whether it’s true. That means marketers can charge more for food branded as healthy; otherwise, “people won’t believe it’s healthy,” says Ryan Hamilton of Emory University.

As with any study, how this plays out in the real world “is open for further investigation,” Hamilton says. Consumers tend to draw on the healthy-expensive belief mainly when choosing among similar options, a limitation the study acknowledges. (Consumers know the salad is healthier than the sundae, even if the sundae costs more.)

When we make quick decisions, like deciding what to buy, we rely on intuition and unambiguous cues, like price. So next time, Haws suggests thinking of counterexamples, like frozen produce, which costs less than fresh produce but contains about the same amount of nutrients. A lean diet doesn’t always need a huge budget.

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