The Price of Healthy Eating
When you go to the supermarket, two of the factors you probably consider most carefully when deciding what to purchase are whether a food is healthy and cost. And how these two factors may affect each other can influence your decisions without you even realizing it. According to new research, many of us have a perception that healthier food is more expensive, and that unconsciously impacts our buying habits. But, as it turns out, that underlying perception may be wrong.
The study, which was conducted at Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University in Columbus, found that most people appear to have misconceptions about the price of healthier foods, leading to the notion that healthier items cost more to buy.1 To test this theory, the scientists recruited 884 subjects, who were a mix of college students and adults, to take part in one of five different experiments.
The first of the trials involved telling the participants about a fictional new product named “Granola Bites.” One group of the volunteers was informed that the item received an A- for healthiness, while the other group was told its ranking was a C. Both groups were then asked to estimate what the price of the Granola Bites would be. Those who thought it had an A- health grade said it would be more expensive than those who believed it to have a C health grade.
A second experiment had subjects consider two breakfast crackers that were exactly the same. After the researchers told them one was more expensive than the other, they asked the group which version was healthier, and they overwhelmingly regarded the pricier one as better for you.
In the third investigation, a pool of participants was notified that a co-worker would be ordering lunch, with half the group told that the meal should be healthy. All of the volunteers could view the lunch options—two kinds of chicken wrap sandwiches—by computer. One of the wraps cost more than the other. The group that was asked to choose a healthy lunch selected the more expensive wrap significantly more often.
For the fourth experiment, two granola products were presented to the subjects. Both were promoted for benefitting eye health, one due to the presence of vitamin A and the other due to DHA. When the version with DHA on the label was priced more expensively, the consumers believed that DHA—a less familiar ingredient—was more essential to eye health than they did when the prices were the same. Incidentally, DHA is an Omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil and Krill oil.
The fifth and final trial had participants assessing another fictional product, this one a forthcoming item given the slogan of “healthiest protein bar on the planet.” One group was informed that it would be sold at a price of $0.99. That group read many more reviews of the product than did another group told it would cost $4. In other words, the first group found it difficult to believe it could truly be healthy if it was so inexpensive, so they attempted to search out the truth.
This study was well designed both in the relative diversity of the population sample included and the five-pronged approach to obtaining results. The fact that all five experiments led to the same outcome certainly strengthens the findings. It suggests that the majority of people have a belief that healthier foods are more expensive and, along the same lines, that more expensive foods are probably healthier.
Of course, some of these perceptions may have developed from our shopping experiences over time. A 2013 study at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts found that it may actually cost a bit more to consume healthier foods, but only to the tune of about $1.50 per day.2 But chances are good that if you stick with seasonal produce and look for sales, it may not cost you any more to eat nutritiously. And it’s important to read labels carefully to truly know which products are healthier. In many cases, you’ll be able to find reasonably priced items that are quite healthy (as well as pricier items that aren’t so great at all). It’s all a matter of doing a little reading, carefully looking at labels, and becoming a more informed consumer.
- 1. Reczek, Rebecca and Haws, Kelly. "The strange effects of thinking healthy food is costlier." Ohio State University. 19 December 2016. Accessed 27 December 2016. https://news.osu.edu/news/2016/12/19/healthy-expensive/.
- 2. Rao, Mayuree; et al. "Do healthier foods and diet patterns cost more than less healthy options? A systematic review and meta-analysis." BMJ Open. 5 December 2013. Accessed 28 December 2016. http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/3/12/e004277.full?sid=820d6e1a-280e-47a6-b8c5-498bfa4657e3.