Must healthy food cost more? Anyone who chooses to shop at Whole Foods would probably answer, “but of course.” After all, Whole Foods — nicknamed “whole paycheck” — places a higher priced premium on healthier foods for one main reason: because it can.
In fact, a new series of studies conducted by U.S. researchers show that businesses mark up the price of so-called “healthier” items — regardless of their actual costs — because shoppers assume healthier = more expensive, and vice versa. It’s even gotten to the point where consumers don’t believe a product can be healthy unless they pay an inflated price for it.
For example, in one study, researchers asked consumers to choose the healthier of two similar chicken wraps. When the “Roasted Chicken Wrap” was priced at $8.95 versus a “Chicken Balsamic Wrap” for $6.95, people chose roasted over balsamic. But when the researchers flipped the prices, so did the consumers’ choices. In other words, the shoppers actively chose the more expensive option because they believed it was healthier. Researchers saw this same practice applied to everything from storage bags to protein bars.
In addition, study participants were more likely to read the ingredients on less expensive products. However, more expensive items got a free pass when it came to studying the ingredients carefully.
Bias strong about new items
In yet another study, researchers wanted to see how consumers assessed the value of an unknown ingredient.
To test this question, researchers told participants about the importance of the essential fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) — which they said helps reverse macular degeneration, an age-associated eye disease that can lead to vision loss. Then, they asked participants to select one of four “trail mix” products containing dried fruits and nuts. One mix cited DHA on the label.
When the DHA trail mix was sold at a higher price, participants put a higher value on both DHA and the underlying health condition. But when the trail mix was sold at an average price, participants weren’t as persuaded that their diet should include DHA or that preventing macular degeneration was as important.
Next the researchers tried this same process with vitamin A, a more familiar nutrient. Again, they told participants that vitamin A could protect the eyes against macular degeneration. But this time, a higher price didn’t change how they viewed vitamin A is as an ingredient.
Interestingly, these findings suggest that the consumers’ unfamiliarity with “healthy” DHA drove these decisions. Moreover, consumers are more likely to rely on that “higher price = healthier” assumption when faced with an unfamiliar “healthy” ingredient or product.
Keep this finding in mind when you run across a new product at the grocery store claiming to include the latest “super food” ingredient.
As a side note, the point of this study is valuable. But I suggest staying away from pre-packaged trail mixes. Fruits and nuts are healthy food ingredients. As I often warn, you should do without the added candies, sugars and salts in these kinds of foods. Eat some plain nuts instead. Even plain peanuts. Research shows that less expensive peanuts have the same health benefits as more expensive tree nuts, like almonds, cashews, pistachios, and walnuts.
But beware of low-priced “discount” peanuts. They often contain “maltodextrin,” an artificial sugar compound, as the second highest ingredient after the nuts. You do not want to eat that ingredient with your nuts. Pay a little more to avoid artificial ingredients.
When I check, I find that Planter’s Nuts are generally free of artificial ingredients, but they do cost a little more. So, here’s a case where paying more gets you a healthier product. It’s worth it when it comes to nuts.
Same cost bias applies to drugs
In the medical field, we see the same cost bias applied to drugs. Patients often think the costlier drugs must work better.
In fact, research shows when an “inactive” placebo pill is substituted for an “active” drug, the more expensive the placebo pill, the greater the placebo effect, and the more effective it is in actually treating a medical condition.
The placebo effect is a very real action. Plus, given the incoherent and ineffective doses and ingredients I see in many dietary supplements and foods, any health benefits must be due to the placebo effect. Imagine the benefits you could get with the right ingredients, doses and combinations.
The word “placebo” comes from Latin, meaning, “I please.” Marketers have learned that pleasing the consumer by meeting their expectations and assumptions can be very rewarding, especially when they charge more simply because a product is assumed to be “healthy.”
Cost-per-calorie analysis reveals the best value in the supermarket
This study “feeds” into the politically correct message that people in the lower income brackets can’t afford to buy healthy foods. But a current Congressional investigation reveals that Americans on government assistance spend one-quarter of all food stamps on pure junk foods, instead of more nutritious food at any price.
In addition, I see a lot of reporting in recent years about so-called “food deserts” (not desserts) where certain communities are said to lack access to “affordable” healthy food in the U.S., which, ironically, is the “breadbasket” for much of the world.
Making healthier food cost more in some cases, but certainly not in all cases. In fact, just compare the prices pound for pound, and nutrient for nutrient, in the outer fresh food and produce aisles to the packaged goods sold in the center aisles.
You get more bang for your buck shopping at the perimeter of the grocery store. Fresh foods pack more nutrition per dollar compared to processed foods, without the added “junk” ingredients.
In fact, the USDA recently conducted a study on cost per calorie of five different groups of foods. They found fruits and vegetables are the two least expensive food groups when analyzed in this way. The two most expensive groups per calorie were grains and processed, packaged junk foods.
In Europe, consumers are more aware of the importance of eating healthy foods than in the U.S. In fact, they began to actively reject genetically modified (GM) foods — and the pesticides required to grow them — years ago. They also reject imported foods that don’t meet their personal standards.
However, European watchdog groups have also revealed that food makers manipulate consumers’ concerns about health by selling them more expensive products.
So now you know. More expensive doesn’t always equate to healthier. Read all product labels. And stick to the perimeter of the grocery store to get the most nutrition from your hard-earned paychecks.
(Stay away from Whole Foods if you can. You can find healthy, organic foods almost everywhere now, at much lower prices.)
- “Healthy diets make empty wallets: The healthy equals expensive intuition,” Journal of Consumer Research 2016: ucw078
- “Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure the Price,” Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. (www.ers.usda.gov) 2012