New research suggests that the more expensive a food item is, the healthier people perceive it to be. So, what gives?

By Julia Malacoff
January 03, 2017
Andy Roberts/Getty Images

Healthy food can be expensive. Just think about all those $8 (or more!) juices and smoothies you've bought in the past year-those add up. But according to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, something really funky is going on with how consumers view the health level of a food relative to its price. Basically, the researchers found that the higher the price of a food, the more likely people were to think it was healthy. What's more, they sometimes refused to believe that a food was healthy when it was inexpensive. Ideally, wouldn't you all want the healthiest food to be the cheapest? Often, at least in the United States, people have been conditioned to believe that fast, unhealthy food should be cheap, and real, healthy food should come at a steeper cost. (FYI, these are the most expensive food cities in the country.)

So how did the researchers discover this faulty shopping method among consumers? People were asked to assign estimated prices to products based on their provided healthiness rating and choose the healthier meal between two options with prices included in the description. The researchers were surprised to find that the more expensive products were consistently considered healthier, and the expectation that a healthy product would be more costly also remained constant. Another part of the study found that a food product that promoted eye health actually made people consider eye health a more serious issue when the price for that product was higher-for real.

The researchers were not only surprised by the results of the study but also worried. "It's concerning. The findings suggest that price of food alone can impact our perceptions of what is healthy and even what health issues we should be concerned about," said Rebecca Reczek, coauthor of the study and professor of marketing at The Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, in a press release. Clearly, these findings are a bit troubling considering it's very possible to eat healthy food on a budget and that there are lots of factors to consider besides price when evaluating the overall quality of a food.

Perhaps the distinction that people are generally mistaking is the difference between "health food" and regular old healthy food-like, you know, vegetables. Plus, most of the major misconceptions about what makes food healthy have to do with labeling. "Organic labeling is important and many foods indeed are healthier when organic, but this does not mean that all foods require this labeling," says Dr. Jaime Schehr, an expert in weight management and integrative nutrition. "In fact, many foods that are unhealthy in their nutrient profile are labeled organic and can mislead the buyer." Think about it. Are you more likely to buy a regular red bell pepper or one that has the word "organic" on its label? Same goes for packaged "health" foods such as trail mix. (Are organic food labels tricking your taste buds?) "People assume that anything labeled vegan, organic, Paleo, or healthy is indeed, healthy," agrees Monica Auslander, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., founder of Essence Nutrition in Miami, Florida. "In reality, we need to not even look at the advertised label, but instead should evaluate the food product using our common sense and nutrition knowledge." In other words, there's no reason to choose a single serving of a packaged vegan gluten-free Paleo snack that costs five dollars over a pack of baby carrots and a container of hummus that will last you an entire week for the same price. Get it now: Just because you're paying more doesn't mean it's necessarily better for you.

Of course, there are times when spending a little extra cash in the name of health is worth it. For example, it's widely agreed upon that you should probably buy organic spinach, as the leafy green absorbs pesticides like whoa. (Check out which other fruits and veggies are the worst chemical culprits.) There are, however, some instances when you really don't need to splurge. For example, "organic bananas are a waste," says Auslander. "Nothing is penetrating that thick peel." She also recommends choosing frozen fruit if you're on a budget since it retains much of its nutritional value when frozen. (Add these other healthy frozen foods to your grocery list for next time.)

It's actually another major misconception that all frozen or packaged foods are bad for you, says Schehr. "People believe that all boxed, frozen, or packaged foods are unhealthy. However, there are some specific foods that are packaged that are still part of a healthy diet," she explains. "Frozen vegetables, for example, are a great way to keep vegetables at home so that you always have access to vegetables that don't spoil easily." So, next time you head to the grocery store, take notice of what's behind your decisions on what makes it into your cart: Is it the food itself, or price sticker?

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