Perception of cost in food & health

Guest Author:  Corrin Kalinich, Nutrition Major & PULSE Intern

Resent research at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business has found that the cost of food has a significant impact on how a consumer views a product. The study emphasized the lay theory which describes how people use rational explanations to comprehend the world regardless if they are correct or not. Five studies were conducted to test the lay theory and how it impacts choices on purchasing food.

This five studies showed that people were more likely to rate a food as healthier if the price was steeper. For example, one of these studies had “granola bites” that were either graded as an A- or C on the health food spectrum. Consumers thought the A- granola bites were more expensive. This pattern also followed with similar results when consumers were asked which breakfast cracker was healthier when the price was given. Again, the more expensive cracker was rated healthier even if the crackers were identical. Further research dug deeper when coworkers were given the task to order a healthy meal for a colleague. Two chicken wrap options were provided with prices and ingredients listed. The coworkers picked the wrap that was more expensive indicating the price dominated the decision rather than what was in the dish.

Additionally, consumers showed that providing information on health has little impact on picking a food product compared to the price. Buyers at a grocery store were instructed to pick a trail mix. Some saw one product labeled as “rich in Vitamin A for eye health” and others say the product as “rich in DHA for eye health.” If the products were more expensive, the product with DHA was seen as healthier than if it was average price whereas the price did not matter for the product with vitamin C. This means that the lay theory is used by the subjects to justify what is healthy when an unfamiliar health ingredient is listed; the more expensive it is, the healthier it has to be. People tend to be familiar with vitamin C, so price does not dictate the choice. Lastly, the study finished with how consumers respond to different prices. If a protein bar was given a high price and termed as the “Healthiest Protein Bar on the Planet,” then consumers were likely to buy the bar without question. If the price was comparable to the average protein bar, consumers were more skeptical and tended to read reviews about the bar before purchasing.

The lay theory is an easy way for consumers to justify that a more expensive product will result in a healthier food option. This research illustrates that people often select their food options based on price rather than looking at the nutrition labels and understanding what foods are truly healthy. Recognizing that healthy does not allows equal cost could potentially allow consumers to be more aware that they can lead a healthier lifestyle without breaking the bank.

For more information about healthy eating, visit or call (805) 756-6181 and make an appointment with a Peer Health Educator on our Health Enrichment Action Team (HEAT).


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