Is healthy food expensive because we expect it to be?

In studies published in the Journal Of Consumer Research recently, it was found that consumers tend to believe that healthy foods are more expensive.
In studies published in the Journal Of Consumer Research recently, it was found that consumers tend to believe that healthy foods are more expensive.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Imagine that you are in a supermarket. After grabbing a box of your favourite pasta off the shelf, you notice a new organic version of the spaghetti sauce you usually buy.

The price is at almost a 50 per cent premium, compared with what your usual sauce costs.

Here we go again, you think - you have to empty your wallet to buy the "healthy" stuff.

If this describes your view of food health and price, you are not alone.

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.

Measuring the relationship between health and the price of food is difficult, as it can be evaluated in a variety of ways, from price per calorie to price per average portion.

In studies published in the Journal Of Consumer Research recently, it was found that consumers tend to believe that healthy foods are more expensive.

While this may hold true in only some product categories, many consumers tend to believe this relationship holds across all categories, regardless of the evidence.

Consumers appear to have a lay theory that healthy foods are more expensive.

The marketplace and the media seem to have taught most consumers to expect foods with special health properties to command a premium price.

A lay theory, in psychology, is the term for a non-expert's belief about how the world works.

Consumers believe that unhealthy foods are tastier, regardless of whether this is objectively true.

Across five studies, researchers showed that even in food categories where there is no relation between price and health, the healthy-equals-expensive belief affects consumers' decisions.

Diving deeper into understanding what is going on in the mind of the consumer, these are some questions: Do higher prices drive consumers to think of something as healthier? Or do cues about healthiness lead them to believe that the price is higher?

In the recent studies, researchers found that this belief seems to operate in both directions.

When consumers were presented only with price information, perceptions of the healthiness of, for example, a breakfast bar, varied with the price.

Similarly, when given a high nutrition grade, the breakfast bar was estimated as being more expensive than the same bar that was graded lower.

In another study, consumers were asked to choose the healthier of two similar chicken wraps.

When a roasted chicken wrap was priced at US$8.95 (S$12.80), versus a chicken balsamic wrap for US$6.95, people chose roasted over balsamic.

But when the prices were flipped, so were the choices.

Another study showed that food products claiming to be healthy, but offered at a lower-than-average price for the product category, led consumers to seek out more evidence before buying.

The healthy-is-expensive belief, however, goes beyond just general inferences about price and health.

Those trying to manage a food budget and feel good about the nutrition of meals may be paying too much.

This can occur despite the availability of pricing and nutritional information.

A simple solution is to get more information first.

This will enable you to rely on more careful, systematic thinking about the health claim being presented, rather than just your belief that a healthy idea requires emptying your wallet.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2017, with the headline 'Is healthy food expensive because we expect it to be?'. Print Edition | Subscribe