Source: The Washington Post, 4 January 2017.

Forget the nutrition facts label, the ingredients list and the say-so of experts. A new Vanderbilt University study published in the Journal of Consumer Research finds that shoppers think a food is healthy only when it costs them more. It’s the latest evidence that your brain may work against you when it comes to choosing healthy foods.

It’s called heuristics.

Researchers in behavioural 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. In fact, a 2013 study published in the journal Appetite concluded that heuristics, not rational choice, are the basis for most of our food decisions.

To test the power of the heuristic, the study’s authors 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.

In the third, participants were asked to order the more healthy of two sandwiches; they consistently picked the more expensive one, even when the researchers switched the prices. In the fourth, subjects rated an unfamiliar vitamin, DHA, as more important to a healthy diet when it was advertised as part of an expensive trail mix, rather than an average-priced one.

In the final trial, participants were asked to evaluate reviews of a new, super-healthy protein bar, which cost either 99 cents or $4. They spent far more time reading the reviews of the 99 cents bar - a sign, the researchers suggest, that most couldn’t believe a “healthy” item would cost so little.

A universe of mental shortcuts.

“Our results suggest that consumers have this really overwhelming sense that healthy equals expensive,” said the study authors. “And that has a big impact on their food decisions.”

That’s not all, they suggest. The healthy = expensive intuition is just one of “a universe of mental shortcuts” that we rely on to choose food, and many of those shortcuts also appear to be flawed. Previous research has described a “supersize bias,” for instance, in which consumers ignore calorie counts and other health information when presented with a meal that seems like a good value. The majority of people also embrace what’s called the “unhealthy = tasty intuition” - the belief that food must be unhealthy to taste good.

Even the shape of a food’s package plays a role. Researchers in the Netherlands recently found that consumers think foods in thin packages are healthier.

All of which means …

You could potentially be overspending on products that aren’t necessarily all that good for you in lieu of your supermarket’s plethora of cheap, healthy options.

The study’s authors suggest that the easiest solution to the healthy = expensive intuition is to simply remind ourselves that it isn’t true while we’re shopping. They suggest arriving at the grocery store with a prepared shopping list, the better to defend yourself against your own mental shortcuts.

Train smart
Peter Rana