Given the prevalence of inexpensive food that promotes overeating, it makes sense that we try to guard against “cheap and unhealthy” food in an effort to be healthy. But we may be overcorrecting, forgetting that “cheap and healthy” food exists too.
According to a recent study published in Journal of Consumer Research, many people believe that healthy food must be more expensive than unhealthy food, and that healthy food just needs to be expensive.
In fact, the study’s researchers found that a high price tag will even convince consumers that a certain food is healthful.
“It’s concerning. The findings suggest that price of food alone can impact our perceptions of what is healthy,” Rebecca Reczek, co-author of the study and professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, said in a statement.
According to Reczek, the purpose of the study was to examine the popular belief, also known as a lay theory, that eating healthy food means spending more money. And sometimes that’s the truth: Organic produce, wild-caught seafood and food that accommodates chronic conditions, such as gluten-free food, all typically cost more money. But other times, the nutritional value of food ranks all the same.
In one experiment, Reczek’s team gave a group of participants a new food product called “granola bites.” Some participants were told the product was very healthy. Other participants were told the bites had little nutritional value. Participants who were told the granola bites were good for them rated the snack as more expensive than the participants who thought the bites were unhealthy.
In another experiment, participants were given a health food bar labeled as “the healthiest protein bar on the planet.” Some participants were told the bar cost just $0.99, others were told the bar was $4.
And here’s what happened: The people who were given the “cheaper” bar needed to read significantly more reviews about the product when it was priced at a lower price point in order to trust that it was healthy.
“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.”
The idea that we all believe healthy food needs to be more expensive works against us, according to the authors. All food companies need to do is rack up the price to convince us, even if it’s not warranted.
But Reczek said there’s also another way: Just shop smarter.
“We don’t have to be led astray,” she 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.”