The idea that healthy foods are universally more expensive drives consumer choices to a degree that it shouldn’t, according to a new study by Kelly Haws, associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management.
While organic ingredients and gluten-free foods have been shown to cost more, consumers extend this mental model to a broad range of products, potentially leading to an avoidance of healthier options—or overpayment for them—because of a misplaced price bias.
“Across five studies, we find that consumers do subscribe to a general lay theory that healthy = expensive despite the fact that this relationship is unlikely to be true in all product categories and contexts,” Haws and her co-authors wrote in a paper recently accepted for publication by the Journal of Consumer Research. “As a result, this lay theory is over-applied beyond the categories where it is objectively true.”
In a pair of studies, the researchers found that when an item is more expensive, consumers infer that it is healthier based on price alone. Similarly, consumers assume that foods identified as being healthier will cost more.
Another study found that consumers fall back on prices when there are not clear differences in the nutritional benefits of various options. For example, participants were asked to choose between two items for a friend who was trying to eat healthy. When a “Roasted Chicken Wrap” was priced at $8.95 versus a “Chicken Balsamic Wrap” for $6.95 at the same (fictional) restaurant, people choose roasted over balsamic. But when the prices were flipped, so were the choices.
The healthy = expensive theory also leads consumers to believe that a particular “healthy” ingredient is more important when an item containing it has a higher price.
Finally, consumers held lower-priced foods to a tougher standard of evidence for any health claims being made. In this study, participants were told that the average price of a protein bar was $2. When a protein bar was priced at 99 cents, consumers examined an average of three product reviews. But when the cost of the bar rose to $4, they looked at an average of two product reviews
Taken together, these studies indicate that the “healthy = expensive” intuition acts as a bias in shaping how consumers process information about health and price.
“If one is operating with an unlimited budget while trying to cook and serve healthy meals, then perhaps this isn’t a problem,” the researchers said. “However, anyone trying to manage their food budgets and feel good about the healthiness of their family meals may well pay too much for their nutrition. This can occur despite ready availability of both pricing and nutritional information, due to the busy and often hurried consumer sacrificing health while attempting to balance budgets.”
In addition to Haws, the co-authors on this paper are Rebecca Walker Reczek, an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, and Kevin L. Sample at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.