In five separate studies of US participants, researchers found a strong belief that healthy food must be more expensive - regardless of the evidence.
One of the central themes of Food Inc film is that it's an illusion that this food is cheap. Journalist Eric Schlosser explains. "It's cheap at the point of purchase, and it's profitable for the companies because their external costs are being imposed on the rest of society.
The results show that marketers can have significant impact by appealing to the health and wellness trend, and that consumers may not even believe a product is healthy unless paying an above average price.
Whole Food's 'whole paycheck'
Rebecca Reczek, marketing researcher at Ohio University told FoodNavigator the US health food supermarket chain 'Whole Foods' has been nicknamed 'Whole Paycheck' over its tendency to set prices for healthy foods unusually high.
The study looked to expose the public assumptions that have developed as a result of such trends.
In one experiment, participants were asked to select a lunch wrap for a colleague who had asked for something healthy; in almost all cases they would choose the more expensive option, regardless of the ingredients listed.
Similarly, when asked to select a protein bar from two options, participants usually chose to read reviews and study the ingredients more carefully on the cheaper option.
Despite the bar being cheaper and called 'the best protein bar in the world' the majority of participants showed more suspicion when the price was low.
Reczek said this revealed an underlying assumption that food must be expensive to qualify as healthy. When participants saw something that contradicted this belief, they took the time and option to research it.
More research on European attitudes needed
Reczek said that future research on European participants needs to be done. The US media may have a profound effect on the attitudes revealed by the study, she said.
"There is also a lot of discussion in the US media about food deserts - neighbourhoods in the US that lack access to affordable healthy food. If consumers in Europe are not exposed to this type of information in stores, restaurants, and the media as frequently, they would likely hold the belief that healthy [is] expensive to a lesser degree."
However, the health and wellness trend in Europe is also flying high, and watch dogs are often exposing manipulations that use consumer's appetite for expensive food that is sold as 'healthy'.
"I think consumer education is the answer here. While it may be true that healthy foods are more expensive in some categories, it is certainly not true in all categories. Consumers need to stop and think" said Reczek.
Adding vits to the mix
In another test that was part of the same experiment, participants were asked to select one of four 'trail mix' products (dried fruit and nuts). One of the options was listed as 'perfect vision mix'. Half the participants saw this option as containing vitamin A and the other half saw it as containing omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
When told that DHA prevents macular degeneration, participant's attitude toward the medical condition itself changed with the price of the product.
When the DHA trail mix was more expensive, they began to perceive macular degeneration as a more important health issue.
This is consistent with previous studies on the placebo effects of drugs, which showed that the more expensive a placebo is the more effective it would be in treating a condition.