Matters of Taste: False truths can mislead consumers at grocery
Not everyone is willing to fork over an entire paycheck for the health halo of food trends such as matcha lattes, sprouted almonds or cold-pressed green juice.
And they don’t necessarily have to.
The belief in the health power of expensive foods — or that healthy foods need to cost more — is misguided, according to Rebecca Reczek, a food psychologist and marketing researcher at Ohio State University.
Reczek and her colleagues regularly survey how people often make decisions based on assumptions about the way the world works — that "green" products are less effective, for example, or that unhealthy foods taste better.
"I want to know: What are the barriers that stop people from making healthy choices?" Reczek said.
Across five related studies, the researchers found that people generally are very likely to think that healthy foods are more expensive, and vice versa.
In one experiment, participants assigned a higher price to granola bites with a health rating of A- than bites they were told graded a C-.
Conversely, researchers found that subjects rated an expensive breakfast cracker as healthier than an identical cracker with a lower price.
In other experiments, participants, when told to pick the healthiest lunch options, chose the most expensive chicken wrap, and, when told that a product with the slogan "Healthiest Protein Bar on the Planet" cost just 99 cents, spent significantly more time reading reviews of the product.
The results suggest that expensive "healthy" foods benefit from a perception boost that might be unwarranted. They could also mean that the odds are stacked against foods that are actually both cheap and healthy.
Such mental prejudice — which Reczek dubs the "Health = Expensive" intuition — matters during grocery shopping, for which consumers depend on habit and gut reactions, not detailed, critical analysis of ingredients and value.
Certainly, Reczek said, gluten-free breads and pastries tend to cost more, as do certain types of organic produce.
But turmeric, kale and chia seeds are examples of relatively inexpensive ingredients that have had their moments in the spotlight within the wellness community.
The only caveat, she said, is that cheap, nutritious foods — such as bulk beans, whole grains, frozen veggies, potatoes and fresh produce — might require extra cooking time.
"There’s this hidden labor cost of preparing food," Reczek said.
To show that healthy food can be both budget- and palate-friendly, I’m sharing my own recipe for Warm French Lentil Salad. Altogether, the main ingredients for this dish cost about $4, with each of the six portions packing 18 grams of protein but containing just 322 calories.
WARM FRENCH LENTIL SALAD
Makes 6 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced (1½ to 2 cups)
2 cups carrots, cut on a diagonal into quarter-inch slices
2 cups celery, cut on a diagonal into quarter-inch slices
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 cup dried brown lentils
1 cup dried green lentils
6 cups broth of choice
1 tablespoon thyme
1 tablespoon oregano
3-4 dried bay leaves
1 shallot, minced
4 tablespoons vinegar of choice
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onion, carrots and celery. Cook for 4-5 minutes, until slightly softened.
Add in garlic and cook for one minute, until fragrant.
Add to the pot lentils, broth, thyme, oregano and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let cook for 30 to 35 minutes until the lentils and carrots are tender. Salt and pepper to taste.
Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette by whisking minced shallot, vinegar and mustard in a separate bowl.
Remove from the heat; drain any remaining broth. Stir in vinaigrette.
Serve warm as an entree or a main dish.
Marion Renault explores the science of food in her monthly Matters of Taste column for The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch.. She can be reached at email@example.com or follow @MarionRenault on Twitter.