Eating Healthy is More Expensive. Is it Really?

Consumers have a pervasive tendency to associate healthier food products and higher prices and using a higher price to judge quality.

March 24, 2017

A Washington Post column explores how studies show that consumers tend to associate higher costs with healthier foods, regardless of evidence. This belief is so pervasive that tips on how to eat healthy on a budget are everywhere, implying that most consumers think this is a truly difficult task. The Post asks: Who hasn’t heard Whole Foods’ nickname, “Whole Paycheck,” or seen incredibly cheap pricing on unhealthy fast food? 

In studies recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research, they found that consumers do tend to believe that healthy foods are in fact more expensive. While this may actually hold true in only some product categories, they  discovered that many consumers tend to believe this relationship holds across all categories, regardless of the evidence. 

The marketplace and the media appear to have taught most U.S. consumers to expect foods with special health properties to command a premium price. While this is the case in some instances (for example, the USDA notes a price premium for many organic foods), in other cases, a general positive relationship between price and healthiness may not exist. 

Consumers also have lay theories, the term for a nonexpert’s belief, about food: for example, believing that unhealthy foods are tastier, regardless of whether this is objectively true. 

In the research, they document the lay theory that consumers have that healthy foods are more expensive. Across five studies, they showed that even in food categories where there is no relation between price and health, the healthy = expensive intuition affects how consumers make decisions about food. 

In the studies the intuition seems to operate in both directions. 

When the “Roasted Chicken Wrap” was priced at $8.95 versus a “Chicken Balsamic Wrap” for $6.95, people chose roasted over balsamic. But when the prices were flipped, so were the choices. That is, people were actively choosing the more expensive option because they believed it was healthier. 

Study participants presented with a $0.99 protein bar (after being told that the average price for protein bars is $2 per bar) chose to view, on average, more than three online reviews before rating how likely they would be to buy the product themselves compared with two reviews when the protein bar had a $4 price tag. The study reports that it takes more convincing when the price seems too good to be true for stated health claims. 

All together, the studies reveal that consumers have a pervasive tendency to associate healthier food products and higher prices and using a higher price to judge quality – even if it is not true which is why we as an industry must be sure to have transparent and the correct information on our products available as more shoppers use their mobile devices to decide just what products to buy.

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