New research has uncovered that the more expensive a food is, the more a person is likely to rate it as being healthy.

A complex decision tree of choices drives a consumer to buy different foods. The perceived healthiness of a food is one such factor and is one where facts and beliefs can intermingle.

Healthy foods are often perceived as being more expensive. On the surface, this can appear valid – organic and gluten-free foods are two examples. But just how much can price influence the perception of the health merits of a food?

In a series of related experiments, researchers from the United States explored how price can influence the subjective view of the health merits of a food.

In the first study, people were given health information on a new product called ‘granola bites’. Some were told the food had a health grade of A- (healthful), while others were told the product was less healthy with a grade of C. Next they estimated how much they thought the product would cost. People assessing the food with an A-minus rating were more likely to estimate it was dearer than the price given to the grade C food.

Another experiment using the reverse design of the first experiment with a new group of people reached a similar conclusion. This time, people were asked to give a health rating to a breakfast biscuit after being told the price. People who were told that the product was expensive were more likely to give it a higher health rating.

The next experiment asked people to imagine that a work colleague had asked them to order their lunch. Half of the people were told that their colleague wanted a healthy lunch, while the other half were given no instructions.

Next, the participants were offered two food choices: a chicken balsamic wrap and a roasted chicken wrap. The ingredients and price for each wrap were shown, but the wrap which was more expensive varied for each person. People asked to choose a healthy wrap were more likely to go for the more expensive wrap, regardless of which wrap it was.

In the final experiment, people were presented with a new product called the ‘Healthiest Protein Bar on the Planet’. Some people were told the bar cost $0.99, while others were told it cost $4. Product reviews were made available to help give their own opinions on the product. When told the bar was $0.99, people were much more likely to read the product reviews to form their own views.

It seems that people had a higher standard of evidence for a general health claim made by low priced product. A more expensive product required a lower level of evidence to validate the health claim.

Implications

Health and price are central facets of the food purchase decision process. Price is considered a proxy measure of health but this relationship does not hold up across all foods.

Food marketers are only too aware of the price premium they can get by green-washing a food. In the absence of solid knowledge of the nutritional merits of a food, it is best to steer away from heavily marketed and expensive food choices.

Last Reviewed: 04/12/2019

Norman Swan Medical Communications



References

Haws KL et al. Healthy diets make empty wallets: the healthy = expensive intuition. Epub online May 12, 2017. doi: 10.1093/jcr/ucw078.