When it comes to barriers of adopting a healthy lifestyle, money is usually at the top of the list. While true, if you only shop at high-end stores, purchase premium products, and go for the special labels (i.e. gluten-free), you’ll end up forking over more money for your eats, it doesn’t have to be this way. The misconception that eating healthy is a costly endeavor has gone on for far too long. In fact, your mind may just be playing tricks on you.
A recent paper from The Ohio State University investigated the perception of believing foods that cost more must be better for you through a series of studies. For one study, researchers told participants about a new food ingredient that boosted eye health. When the ingredient was said to be expensive, the participants felt they should be more concerned about their eye health. However, when the same ingredient was said to be cheap, participants no longer felt eye health was an important concern for them. This demonstrates that simply the price tag impacts our perception of what’s nutritious and what health issues we should be concerned about.
In another study, participants were told about a new product, “granola bites,” which was subsequently given a health grade of either an A- or a C (side bar: hate the concept of giving foods letter grades, but we’ll get into that another WTF Wednesday ;)). After the participants were given the information, they were asked about how much they thought the product cost. Participants that were told “granola bites” received an A- rated the product as more expensive versus the participants that were given the C grade. Interesting how the belief that more expensive food = healthier holds up here.
The researchers also did a study with breakfast crackers. When participants were told a breakfast cracker was expensive, they rated it as healthier than a breakfast cracker that cost less. Turns out, the breakfast crackers were exactly the same.
The researchers then wanted to see how this perception of health = expensive held up when it came to making choices. Participants were asked to pick out a healthy lunch and were shown 2 options with the ingredients listed: a chicken balsamic wrap and a roasted chicken wrap. The researchers found the ingredient list didn’t matter. When the chicken balsamic wrap was listed as costing more, participants were more likely to order it. However, when the roasted chicken wrap cost more, it too had a greater chance of being selected.
In the next study, participants were asked to pretend they were selecting a trail mix at the store and they were given 4 options, all listed at various prices. One of the trail mixes was labeled as “Perfect Vision Mix.” Participants either saw this trail mix marketed as “Rich in Vitamin A for eye health” or “Rich in DHA for eye health.” The “Perfect Vision Mix” was also listed as either an average price or the most expensive choice.
Participants that saw the trail mix with the Vitamin A believed it was vital in a healthy diet, regardless of how much it cost. Meanwhile, participants that saw the trail mix with the DHA felt that it was healthier when it was listed as the most expensive price than when it had the average price tag. This is most likely because people have heard of Vitamin A, so they weren’t using the price to justify its importance in a healthy diet. On the other hand, DHA is less familiar, so the participants were probably using the price tag to weigh in on how healthy the trail mix was.
Building on this study, the researchers told participants that DHA was important in lowering risk of macular degeneration. When the price of the trail mix was expensive, participants felt macular degeneration was a crucial health issue. However, when the price tag dropped, participants didn’t feel as worried about macular degeneration.
For the last study, participants were asked to review a new bar with the slogan, “Healthiest Protein Bar on the Planet.” Participants were told the bar would cost $0.99 or $4, and that the average price of protein bars was $2. Then, they were able to read reviews of the bar. When participants were told the bar cost $0.99, they read way more reviews than when the bar was said to cost $4. Why? Perhaps because they were in disbelief that the healthiest protein bar could only cost $0.99.
The takeaway from these findings is we gotta get rid of the misconception that healthy food costs more money. Otherwise, food companies are just going to hike up the prices. Keep an eye out for a post on budget-friendly grocery shopping soon :).
1. Read the ingredient list: Look for products with ingredients that are mostly recognizable.
2. Compare labels: When choosing between products, look at the Nutrition Facts Label and compare values for different nutrients. Generally, choose products lower in saturated fat and sugar, while higher in vitamins and minerals.
3. Consult the experts: Research different products and ingredients before hitting the store. See what various nutrition experts (i.e. PhDs, Masters, and/or Registered Dietitians) say about a certain item. Use original research articles to learn more about different food components. Ask questions. Reach out and contact nutrition experts/Nutrition PhD students, we are here to help :).
How do you make food purchasing decisions?
Have you ever purchased something more expensive because you felt it was healthier? (I have! *blushes*)