Expensive Food = Healthy?

There are many factors to take into account when considering whether a food is healthy — its refined carbohydrate content, how much and what types of fat it contains, and whether it contains other beneficial nutrients, for example. But apparently, many people also take another factor into account, probably without knowing it — how much the item costs.

A new study, not yet published but appearing in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, looks at the way people perceive the relationship between cost and health in foods from many different angles. As noted in an
article on the study
in The Washington Post, people rely somewhat on a food’s cost to tell them how healthy it is as a mental shortcut — because without such a shortcut, they’d be forced to evaluate nutrition claims and information, which can get complicated and difficult.

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As one part of the study, researchers asked participants (consisting of college undergraduates) to evaluate a new food item based on either its nutrition information or its price along with basic information about the item. When participants were shown a healthier item, they tended to predict that it was more expensive, and when they were shown a more expensive item, they predicted that it was healthier.

In another part of the study, participants were asked to choose the healthier option between two different sandwiches, based on a description of each sandwich as well as its price. They predictably chose the more expensive sandwich — and this remained true even when the researchers switched the sandwiches’ prices, but kept all other information the same.

Another experiment asked participants to give their estimated rating of how healthy an unfamiliar vitamin — DHA — is, based on it being included in either an expensive trail mix or an average-priced mix. When they were shown the expensive trail mix along with the claim that it contained DHA, participants responded that they thought DHA was more important to a healthy diet than when they were shown the cheaper trail mix with the same claim.

Finally, participants were asked to give their opinion on reviews of “super-healthy protein bar” that cost either $4.00 or $0.99. When the bar cost $0.99, participants spent much longer evaluating the reviews — indicating that they were less likely to believe claims of a healthy item when it seemed to cost too little.

So how can you guard against assuming that more expensive foods are healthier, when this isn’t actually the truth in many cases? One of the study’s authors has simple advice — just remember that more expensive doesn’t mean healthier, and try to evaluate an item’s nutritional value without paying attention to its cost. Of course, this may be easier said than done, when the association between the two appears to be nestled deep in our brains.

What’s your take on the relationship between a food’s price and its nutritional value — do you think you sometimes make an assumption in this area? If so, do you think an awareness of the assumption could help you change it? Do you think there might actually be some truth to the idea that more expensive food is healthier, at least sometimes? Are you skeptical that you could follow a healthy diet without spending more money on food? Leave a comment below!