Consumers think food has to be expensive to be healthy (study)

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You’re faced with two identical food products, both of which claim to be “healthy” options. The only difference is the price: one is more expensive than the other. Which do you believe is better for you? Probably the more expensive one based on the price point alone.

This is the finding of a study out of The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

Consumers believe that that higher-priced food is healthier than less expensive food – even when there is no supporting evidence. This means marketers can charge more for products labeled as healthy and that people will pay. They even found that people don’t believe food is healthy if it is not more expensive.

The results mean that marketers can charge more for products that are touted as healthy. They also mean that those guys are laughing at our stupidity all the way to the bank.

“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, a professor or marketing at the Business School and co-author of 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.)

On the flip side, this is in line with the common perception that inexpensive food must be junk.

Yes, some better for you food options can be more expensive but it’s not always the case, Reczek says.

The researchers conducted five studies.

In one, participants were given information on what they were told was a new product which was given a health grade of either A- or C. They 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 a second study, participants rated a breakfast cracker that they were told was more expensive as healthier than an identical cracker that cost less.

In a third, a group of people was asked to imagine that a co-worker had asked them to order lunch for them. Half the people were told the co-worker wanted a healthy lunch, while the others weren’t give any instructions.

Participants were given a choice of two different (imaginary) chicken wraps to choose for their co-worker, one of which was more expensive.

“Results showed that when participants were asked to pick the healthiest option, they were much more likely to choose the more expensive chicken wrap.”

In the fourth study participants were presented with trail mix options at different price points:

The option that the researchers were interested in 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.

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 thought it was 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.”

But – and here’s the really interesting part: When participants were told DHA helped prevent macular degeneration, people thought this was a more important health issue when the trail mix with DHA was more expensive. When it was priced averagely, people didn’t care so much about macular degeneration.

Weird, right?

In the final study, participants were asked to evaluate a new product with the brand slogan “Healthiest Protein Bar on the Planet.”

Some participants were told this new bar would be $0.99, while others were told it would be $4. They were told that the average bar cost $2.

They were then given the opportunity to read reviews of the bar before they offered their own evaluation.

Findings showed the participants read significantly more reviews when they were told the bar would cost only $0.99 than when it cost $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.”

It’s hard to get over the popular perception that expensive things are, well, just better in general.

Reczek says, “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.”