People think that expensive food is healthier than cheap food, even though price has little to do with a food's health qualities. We also discount the importance of cheap food on our health, even when it is just as good for us as the pricey stuff.
It's not hard to see how this association came about. Stores like Whole Foods, which sell themselves as being full of healthy eats, are expensive, even though they sell just as much processed junk as a discount grocery store. Adding to the confusion is the fact that some healthier foods are, indeed, more expensive. Organic fruits and vegetables cost more, as do gluten-free foods, but those aren't necessarily healthier, either—they just cost more to produce.
A new soon-to-be-published study from Ohio State University examines the common-sense assumption that healthier food costs more, and got some fascinating results. In one test, for instance, participants were told about a new product called Granola Bites, and asked how expensive they thought it might be. Those who were told that Granola Bites had a "health grade" of A thought they'd be more expensive. Those told that they were grade C rated them as cheaper. Another test reversed the order, with participants rating a more expensive food as healthier.
So far, what we have is a marketer's dream. You only need to increase the price of a product and people think it's healthier. But things get even weirder.
In the next test, participants were asked about some fictional trail-mix products. One was called Perfect Vision Mix, and was marketed either as "rich in vitamin A for eye health," or "rich in DHA for eye health." The trick here is that many people know that vitamin A is good for the eyes, but few even know what DHA is, let alone its effects on your eyes. In this test, various participants saw the products at different prices.
When asked about the importance of vitamin A, the participants rated it as equally important, regardless of the price of the trail mix. But when asked about DHA, they rated it as a more important part of a healthier diet when it was in the expensive trail mix. Because people lack knowledge of DHA, they use price as a guide instead.
"It’s concerning," says study co-author Rebecca Reczek. 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."
A final test presented participants with a new product, the Healthiest Protein Bar on the Planet. Some were told that the bar would cost $0.99, others $4. The average price of the competition, they were told, was $2, and they were allowed to read reviews of the the new bar before rating it.
Those who were told the bar would be $0.99 read way more reviews than those who were told it would cost more. "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."
Perhaps the most interesting result here is that we just can't believe that something cheap can also be good. We automatically trust expensive products to be better, but have to force ourselves to believe that we don't have to pay for quality. In terms of healthy foods, that's already a problem, especially for those on low incomes. But if this applies to all product categories, then we might be wasting a fortune on goods that are no better than much less expensive alternatives.