When Food Is Not a Bargain: Study Says Price, Rather Than Nutrition, Affects Shoppers Most

Kusum Ailawadi, a marketing professor at the Tuck School of Business, led a study that found that price affects food purchase decisions much more than factors such as education or income level. (Courtesy photograph)

Kusum Ailawadi, a marketing professor at the Tuck School of Business, led a study that found that price affects food purchase decisions much more than factors such as education or income level. (Courtesy photograph)

Hanover — You may consider yourself a healthy eater and assume that your self control and knowledge of nutrition has helped you develop good habits.

But you may not be as healthy as you think.

At least, that is according to a new study out of Dartmouth College that found that many of the personal qualities commonly associated with healthy eating — education, interest in nutrition and even income level — don’t have as much impact on our food decisions as we tend to give them credit for.

Rather, the single most important factor is the price of what we’re eating.

“Prices, what we see in the marketplace, affects our shopping much more than we realize,” said Kusum Ailawadi, a marketing professor at the Tuck School of Business, who led the study. “Even with all good intentions, with our concern for nutrition, when we see something that’s too expensive and we can’t afford it, we don’t buy it. When we see something on sale, we buy it, even though it may not be very good for us.

“This is more of a (call to) consumers to wake up and be even more conscious of what you buy.”

The finding has implications for food marketers and policy makers who are interested in lowering the rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other health problems growing throughout the United States that are influenced by nutrition.

In the study, Ailawadi and her colleagues went beyond what consumers said about their eating habits — after all, people lie about what they eat — and looked at their actual shopping patterns over several years. As expected, people with high self-control — those who exercise regularly and don’t eat much fast food — bought less junk food. But they canceled out many of the benefits from avoiding junk food because they consumed more of the items they believed to be healthy, such as yogurt and cereal, and thus took in more overall calories and sugar.

The study also examined the impact that a diagnosis of diabetes, which has strong links to obesity, has on food consumption. Sugar consumption for diabetic individuals decreased immediately after diagnosis. But those people also increased their fat and sodium intake.

For the most part, it didn’t matter if someone who was diagnosed with diabetes also had high self-control or knew a lot about nutrition; the impact of those factors remained the same.

“All common sense and conventional wisdom would say people with more education and who are more aware of nutrition and who have more self-control should make better changes after they are diagnosed with diabetes, and we didn’t find that,” Ailawadi said. “We found that education and self-control really didn’t matter.”

That is not to say “let’s just give up, because (education) doesn’t help anyway,” Ailawadi said. Indeed, it does help. But prices affect our decisions much more than we realize, she said, and both food marketers and policy makers need to take note.

“My advice to marketers, like it or not, people are going to have to get more careful about what they eat because disease is much more expensive to manage otherwise,” she said. “If you want to keep your consumer franchise and not lose them completely, then make better products, make healthier products.”

This will not be easy, she said. Food companies, of course, are concerned with selling products and making profits. Most food marketers believe that the segment of consumers that cares about health is small and less influenced by prices, Ailawadi said.

But price influences everyone, she said. And healthier options tend to cost more. The “less unhealthy” foods, such as low-sodium turkey, costs in some cases 50 percent more than the high-sodium, high-fat counterparts, a significant deterrent to choosing the better option, Ailawadi said.

To change this, Ailawadi said some government intervention may be necessary.

She doesn’t believe that a ban on large sodas, such as the one New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to establish, is the best approach. If price matters most, then some kind of tax on unhealthy foods would change consumer behavior.

“I think a fat tax, a sugar tax, a soda tax,” she said. “Just like a tobacco tax worked. It has cut down smoking hugely in this country. I think a fat tax or a sugar tax will and should work and we should use it.”

There was a proposal in Vermont this year to tax sugary beverages as a way to fight obesity and perhaps pay for health reform efforts in the state. The proposal, led by a coalition of health advocacy groups, called for adding a penny per ounce on sodas and other sugary drinks, and could have raised an estimated $26.7 million, according to the Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

Retailers fought the legislation and the bill never made it out of the House Ways & Means committee. Gov. Peter Shumlin also refused to back the proposal, saying that education was a better way to combat obesity. He called it a regressive tax that effectively penalized poor people who depend on sugary beverages as a source of cheap calories.

Consumers need to be more careful about their choices, Ailawadi said. They should not buy a product claiming to be “low fat” or “low sodium” without reading the rest of the nutritional information on the package.

Ailawadi has changed her own shopping behavior as a result of what she found in the study.

“One thing I do now ... is I don’t just look at the claim on the front of the package that says ‘low sugar,’ ‘low fat,’ ‘low sodium.’ That means nothing,” she said. “Because an item might have low sugar, they make it up with high fat. Or if it’s low fat, they make it up with high sugar. You have to read the label.”

People also need to watch how much they eat. It’s not enough to buy the healthier options. If people are eating too much, then they are canceling out many of the benefits of buying more nutritious food.

“I’m hoping (the study helps) nutritionists and dieticians to see what kinds of foods people are making good changes in and what kinds of foods they are not,” she said. “They can provide better guidelines to patients and give them these red flag things that say, ‘watch out.’ ”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.