How “healthy” confuses people

As a secular retail anthropologist and a farmers market consultant, this article is like a bite of my market vendor’s satsumas right now:

DE-lightful!

 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 Americans also embrace what’s called the “unhealthy = tasty intuition” — the belief that food must be unhealthy to taste good.

Obviously, that last line is the one markets should consider and maybe even draw part of their marketing strategy from it. If used properly, a message like “delicious tastes found here” can be an inviting message and could draw a wider audience to markets than the buy local messages that our field has long employed. And clearly better than using “healthy” to entice eaters who are not in the grips of a healthy living focus.

From the report mentioned in the article:

Schulte-Mecklenbeck, M., Sohn, M., de Bellis, E., Martin, N., & Hertwig, R. (2013). A lack of appetite for information and computation. Simple heuristics in food choice:

According to our findings, people are inclined to rely on simple strategies that limit search when making food choices. In addition, our participants paid more attention to the dishes’ image and name at the expense of nutritional information such as caloric and salt content… However, previous investigations (using, for instance, self-reports and eye tracking) have also concluded that many consumers are reluctant to make use of food label information.

I saw this very thing during my days as a buyer at Whole Foods, and as an office building convenience store chain general manager and even before that, when working back in the 1990s on a campaign to increase the number of organic items in Giant Eagle stores. In all of those instances, I noted how people would evaluate the healthy food with a confused look, often moving with almost a sleepwalker’s mien. In contrast, their physical behavior became very purposeful and focused once on aisles with less choice or less scientific data to absorb (like soda or paper goods). That the amount of data to process for many was simply too much was my takeaway. As an example, I remember a farmers market coworker who had come to healthy food late in life told me that “all” he bought was organic produce and since Whole Foods “only carried organic” he bought all of the produce he could not get from farmers at that store only. I shared the news that no, Whole Foods didn’t ONLY carry organic produce and that the pricing signs were color coded as to whether they were organic or not (and that most was not organic).  He was in shock to find that out; turns out he had never noticed the color coding or the words organic or conventional on the signs, probably because there was so much for him to learn as he began to shop there.

So that was a good example of shopper overwhelm. And from someone who was savvy enough to work at a market too.

So this is the type of aha that I wish for each of you. I also suggest that spending some time on research like this will be helpful to understanding what and how to dole out the info that is vital to any successful marketing/outreach campaign.

The Washington Post

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2 Comments

  1. A year or two ago, I talked with a market customer who thought everything was organic unless otherwise declared. It was hard not to ask if she was kidding. I instead told her that her misunderstanding is a world I would like to live in.

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