OSU Researchers Get to Bottom of Long Held Belief About Food Cost and Health

Consumers believe healthy food must be more expensive than cheap eats and that higher-priced food is healthier – even when there is no supporting evidence, according to new research.

The results mean not only that marketers can charge more for products that are touted as healthy, but that consumers may not believe that a product is healthy if it doesn’t cost more, researchers say. For example, people in one study thought eye health was a more important issue for them when they were told about an expensive but unfamiliar food ingredient that would protect their vision. If the same ingredient was relatively cheap, people didn’t think the issue it treated – eye health – was as important.

The results appear online in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The study was conducted to examine the lay theory that we have to pay more to eat healthfully. Lay theories are the common-sense explanations people use to understand the world around them, whether they are true or not. Messages consistent with the “healthy = expensive” lay-theory are all around us. One example is the “Whole Paycheck” nickname people have given to Whole Foods, which touts itself as “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store.”

There are certainly categories of food where healthy is more expensive, such as some organic and gluten-free products, researchers stated. But it is not necessarily true all the time. The researchers conducted five related studies, all with different participants. The results all point to the lay-theory of “healthy = expensive” is not only something consumers believe, but act on.

While these results may be concerning for consumers there is a remedy. Consumers need to become scientists themselves, collecting data and making comparisons before drawing conclusions. It makes shopping easier to believe the overarching lay-theory that expensive food must be healthy because it’s expensive. While this kind of circular thinking is a logical fallacy, it quickly puts consumers at ease with their choices. Getting past easy comfort and making informed choices is the best way around this particularly false folk theory.