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Healthy foods may not be as pricey as you think

A new study shows people tend to assume more expensive foods are healthier and healthier foods are more expensive.

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Picture two identical foods, equally tasty looking. If one is pricier, people often assume it’s healthier, say the authors of a new study.

“People think healthier foods are more expensive foods and vice versa,” said Rebecca Reczek, co-author of the study and professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

Reczek is a consumer psychologist who studies how people make decisions about what they buy.

Concerned that many people still eat too much junk food even though they know there’s an obesity epidemic in the U.S., Reczek told CBS News, “We wanted to know, why are people not always choosing healthy foods, and one answer to that question is because they often think they won’t taste as good, but we thought, that can’t be the only driver.”

Reczek and her colleagues suspected people’s perceptions also had to do with price — they knew people perceived organic and gluten-free foods as more expensive — so they developed five experiments to test their theory. The study involved 884 college undergraduates and adult consumers who each participated in one of the five experiments.

In the first part, participants were given information on a new product called “granola bites,” which were either rated an A- or a C for healthiness. They were then asked to rate how expensive the product would be. Participants who were told the health grade was A- thought the granola bites were more expensive. Those who were told the granola earned a C health grade thought it was less expensive.

In a second experiment, the researchers asked people to rate two identical breakfast crackers, but told them that one was more expensive. The consumers said they believed the more expensive one was healthier.

For the third test, another group was told that a co-worker had asked to order lunch for them. Half the people were told the co-worker wanted to order a healthy lunch while the others weren’t told anything specific. The participants could see the lunch choices on a computer screen — two types of chicken wraps, one more expensive than the other. The study found that the participants asked to pick the healthiest option were much more likely to choose the pricier chicken wrap.

“It showed people do subscribe to this notion that healthy means more expensive, and they are making choices based on that,” Reczek said.

The next experiment offered a choice between granola products, one described “rich in vitamin A for eye health” and the other “rich in DHA for eye health.” When the DHA trail mix was offered at a higher price, the participants thought it was a more important part of a healthy diet than when it carried an average price tag.

“The ingredient people were familiar with — the vitamin A — didn’t influence them,” she said. They weren’t as familiar with DHA, so they relied on the “expensive must be healthier” belief, Reczek explained.

In the last test, participants were asked to evaluate a new product that would have the brand slogan “Healthiest Protein Bar on the Planet.” When they were told it would cost only $0.99, they read more reviews about it the bar compared to when they were told the bar cost $4. The researchers chalk it up to the fact that people had a hard time digesting the fact that such an amazingly healthy bar was so cheap.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Consumer Research, wasn’t meant to investigate the actual relationship between healthy foods and pricing — just people’s perceptions or assumptions about the two. 

The findings suggest that the “expensive-equals-healthy bias” can have an unfortunate impact on people’s food choices, said Reczek, because people may cheat themselves out of healthy, affordable options.

“I’d caution people: don’t use price as an indicator of how healthy a food is. Don’t think you can’t eat healthy if you’re on a budget,” she said.

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    Mary Brophy Marcus covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com