The simple mistake people make when they try to eat healthy


Forget the nutrition facts label, the ingredients list and the say-so of experts: A new study finds that shoppers think a food is healthy only when it costs them more.


The study, forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research, is the latest evidence that your brain may work against you when it comes to choosing healthy foods. Researchers say our subconscious association of cost with health — what they call the “healthy = expensive intuition” — can prompt shoppers to not only spend more money but also to make uninformed health decisions without realizing it.

“We often ask how consumers process information about what they should eat,” said Kelly Haws, a processor of marketing at Vanderbilt University and a co-author of the new paper. “The truth is, we give them a ton of information — and they don’t process it all.”

Haws and other researchers in the realm of behavioral economics have a name for this phenomenon: It’s called heuristics, and it basically describes any sort of mental shortcut that we use to simplify decisions. Instead of consciously evaluating all of the information we have about a product — its calorie count, its ingredients, its brand, its location in the store — our brains rely on simple assumptions, such as the belief that healthy foods always cost more.

These assumptions can be deeply flawed, particularly when they’re applied to an overbroad set of situations. And we do apply them broadly when it comes to food: A 2013 study published in the journal Appetite concluded that heuristics, not rational choice, are the basis for most of our food decisions.

Given that prevalence, Haws said, a heuristic like “healthy = expensive” can have profound implications for consumer choice and, by extension, public health — particularly since the “healthy = expensive” intuition appears to be so persuasive to the consumers who depend on it.

To test the power of the heuristic, Haws and her two co-authors — Rebecca Reczek at Ohio State, and Kevin Sample at the University of Georgia — ran five experiments on several hundred college undergrads. In the first two experiments, participants were shown a “new” food product and asked to guess either its price or health value. In both iterations of the experiment, participants assigned higher prices to healthier products, and better health grades to more expensive foods.

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