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Healthful eating, empty wallet?

When scanning the shelves at your favorite grocery, you likely make quick decisions about what to buy.

Should you go with your usual spaghetti sauce because it costs less? Or an organic option with a higher price tag? Then there’s a new product that promises healthful, quality ingredients at a sale price.

What is the best choice?

It depends, explains Rebecca Reczek, an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business. As co-author of a study in the Journal of Consumer Research, she found people tend to view products priced higher as being more healthful.

While this may be the case for specialty foods, like gluten-free or some organic options, it doesn’t hold true all the time. Here, Reczek explains why we may be led astray.

What were you trying to discover with the study?

The study’s goal was to see how prices affect people’s perceptions of how healthful purchases may be in a grocery store. We looked at how people view nutritional value versus cost — and why.

Other studies have looked at whether there is a true relationship between food health and price. We were interested in understanding how this belief — regardless of whether it is objectively true — influences our food choices.

What can people take away from this?

When there’s little information about a product’s nutritional value on the label — or if we choose not to read the label — we tend to rely on price as an indicator of its healthfulness. And the notion that higher prices do equal more healthful choices appears to be widespread.

In five studies with different participants, we found that the healthful-equals-expensive belief affects what foods people choose, even when there is no evidence to support the belief.

People become trapped in this way of thinking, in part because the marketplace and media teach us that positive benefits of a product often equal higher pricing.

We tend to see life’s choices according to “lay theories,” common-sense explanations that people use to understand the world around them. These intuitions often influence our choices, whether that explanation is true or not.

We use intuition as a factor for choosing a grocery item to buy. The more information we have about an item, the less we have to rely on intuition.

It sounds like consumers can be persuaded fairly easily to buy something more expensive.

The studies suggest that price alone can impact our perceptions of what is healthful and even what health issues we should be concerned about.

In one study, we presented people with an unfamiliar ingredient that they were told played a key role in eye health. When that ingredient was in an expensive product, they thought it was an important part of a healthful diet. If the same ingredient was in a relatively cheap product, they didn’t think it was so key to the diet. In fact, when it was in a less expensive product, people didn’t think the issue it treated — eye health — was as important as a health issue.

What can we do to make better decisions when shopping?

We need to be aware of our expensive-equals-healthful bias and look to overcome it by searching out objective evidence. We don’t have to be led astray.

Keep “healthful” in perspective. Compare nutrition labels and do research before going to the grocery store. Read the nutrition labels on the product and learn how to evaluate what they mean.

Keep your cell phone or tablet handy while shopping to look up ingredients and health claims about an item. Use facts where possible, and avoid going solely with intuition or a gut feeling when you select an item off the grocery shelf.