The Price of Food – Dolla Dolla Bills Ya’ll

Nutritional experts often talk about the term “health halo.” This is when a product (that may not be o-so nutritious for you) enjoys a healthy reputation. (That it doesn’t deserve.) For example: SALAD – Add some cheese, croutons, hard boiled eggs, crispy chicken, bacon bits, avocado, and gallons of dressing on top of some romaine – and yes, while it’s still technically a salad (and probably so freakin’ delicious), is it even that healthy for you?? .. Just as we associate salads with health, many recently published studies have shown that we associate price of food with the health of foodThat is, more expensive foods benefit from the “health halo” of that higher cost, while more affordable foods are seen as junkier for you.


I mean, when you think about it, it’s not hard to see how this association came about. What do you think of when you think of the foods sold at Whole Foods? Stores like Whole Foods, (which also tend to be on the more expensive side), are thought of as being chock-full of healthy, nutritious foods. Which may be true, but, they also sell as much processed junk food as any regular grocery store. What makes this healthy food conundrum worse for the end consumer, is the fact that some healthier foods are more expensive (such as organic fruits and vegetables). Other foods, such as gluten-free foods, cost more as well. But this is only true because they are more expensive to produce.

whole foods

In one experiment, participants were asked to guess how much a snack called “granola bites” should cost. Half of the subjects were told that the bites were healthy. The other half were told they were about halfway between a health food and junk food. Members of the first group assumed the “granola bites” were more expensive. In another experiment, participants munched on what they believed to be an expensive cracker. These participants rated the cracker as healthier than those who were told that they had been given a cheaper cracker.
In third experiment, participants were given information about a new protein bar claimed to be the “healthiest protein bar on the planet.” Half of the panelists were told that the bar would cost $0.99 (half the price of the average protein bar). The other half were told that the bar would cost $4.00 (twice the price of the average protein bar). The researchers then asked them to share their opinions of the bar. The first group could not believe that the so-called “healthiest protein bar” would cost less than the average bar. The second group, however, was much more willing to accept that the bar would cost twice as much as the average bar (obviously).

trail mix

And finally, in a fourth experiment, participants were asked about a fictional trail mix which was called “Perfect Vision Mix.” This trail mix was marketed to half the panelists as being “rich in vitamin A for eye health” (at a cheaper AND a more expensive price point) and marketed to the second half of panelists as being “rich in DHA for eye health” (at a cheaper AND more expensive price point). The kicker in this study was that many people know that vitamin A is good for your eyes, while very few people know that DHA is good for your eyes (let alone what DHA even is?!). In this test, results showed that when asked about the importance of the presence of vitamin A, participants rated it as just as important as the health of the trail mix, regardless of the price BUT when asked about the importance of the presence of DHA, they rated it as just as important as the health of the trail mix ONLY when it was priced on the more expensive end. Therefore, because of the lack of knowledge of DHA and what is it/what it does, participants used price as a guide in rating its importance.

tv commercial

This can mean a few things for both the food companies and the end consumers:
  1. The price of food alone can impact our perceptions of what is healthy.
  2. The price of food can impact what health issues we should be concerned about
  3. Food companies can mark up the price of the healthy products they’re selling and we (the end consumer) would accept it.
  4. People are less likely to believe a product’s health benefits/claims unless they’re spending more money on it than normal. (Which can lead to more affordable foods with the same nutritional benefits left on the shelves.)
  5. Shoppers on the hunt for healthier options may rely on the price sticker to do all the work for them.
  6. AND FINALLY we just can’t believe that something cheap can also be good for us?!?! We trust expensive products and foods to be better and of better quality.

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