Eating Healthily and Heuristics

April 3, 2018 in Food Economics, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

If you’re embracing the concept of moving toward healthier eating, but you’re worried that your budget can’t support your goal, today I’d like to try to calm your worries.

Let me dive right into the findings of Kelly Haws MBA, PhD, a professor of Marketing at Vanderbilt University, who published an article in 2017 called, Healthy Diets Make Empty Wallets: The Healthy = Expensive Intuition. In essence, she found that the majority of consumers believe that healthy foods always cost more. And as Haws says, this heuristic (see definition below) “has a powerful influence on consumer decision making, with significant implications for both consumers and marketers.

Definition of heuristics: Heuristics are simple, efficient rules. that are not exact, but work often enough to be quite useful. I’d say that a short definition would be just mental shortcuts. Another short definition is rule of thumb.

If you’re concerned about health, you could potentially overspend. This is where “Healthy=Expensive” is harmful. The frosting on this disagreeable cake is that the items that you’re overspending for are not necessarily the healthiest choice. Your brain may actually be working against you, in your goal to eat healthier. Ouch!

Let’s not forget to observe the second half of the implications issue – the marketers. Let’s face it; all marketers have to do is hike up the price of an item to make it appear healthier (maybe even include some acronym, vitamin, nutrient or whatever on the label) to make it appear to be related to health – then charge more. This, of course, is already happening. I have to say ouch again.

It’s not easy to change marketers; or consumers for that matter; but maybe we can start educating consumers. It seems to me, if the shopper realizes that the price may be high for no other reason than to make it appear to be the healthier option, then that knowledge is key. Maybe if we realize this issue, we will slow down and think a few more split seconds.

The shortcuts – heuristics, can be deeply flawed, and do not even deserve to be called herusitics, they are just misinformation, stoked by marketers who want you to believe healthy costs more. You may not think that heuristics, good or bad, would be involved in something as basic and simple as grocery shopping, but (here is the really BIG BUT) that would be just plain wrong. Think about it; you’ve got so many minutes to zip through the market. You certainly can’t scrutinize the label of each and every item that you pick up if you’re shopping for a family, unless of course, you want to spend a big chunk of your day at the market. Shopping requires lots of decisions. Each of us has a limit on how many good decisions we can make before we start taking mental shortcuts. I’ll share one example. Many, many years ago I subconsciously created a heuristic; it was that the large family size cost less per ounce/serving that the small size. I lived by the heuristic, never questioning it for decades. Some years ago, markets began posting the price already calculated per ounce/piece/gram. That was really nice; it meant that I did not need to be motivated enough to get my phone out and calculate it. Generally, not enjoying shopping much, I zip through the market at rocket speed. But I was raised by a grandmother who raised five children during the Great Depression – I embraced budgeting and still don’t like to overpay. Especially when buying a new product, I traditionally slow down a bit. Most of the time I read the label of new products, especially the ingredient list and the price per ounce/piece/gram. What a shock I received when I discovered, more than once, that the large container was more costly than the smaller container. To me it’s a testimony that heuristics cannot only be created, but they can also be remodeled. That’s great news for all of us.

Another heuristic that is related to healthy eating is the belief that food that tastes good mustn’t be healthy. Nonsense! If you’ve read this blog for years, you know that I often relate the concept that the use of herbs and spices make vegetables taste wonderful. I know this is just a little anecdote, but when people come to dinner and exclaim how wonderful the vegetables are, I think that maybe they’re not seasoning their vegetables at home. Plain unadorned/unseasoned vegetables can be unappetizing – it’s just that simple.

Just to drive home the idea that nourishing food – often the most nourishing food is often the most budget friendly, I’m sharing a longish list of hints for buying budget-friendly nourishing food.

  • Fresh produce in season – you don’t really need to be some kind of agriculture expert. Just look at the advertisement for the local farmer’s market or grocery store. Let me note here that even if you know it’s not in season, it may be the season in another country that freely trades with your country – so Voila! It’s in season for you.
  • Frozen vegetables (without sauce and added butter) last for months in the freezer. That translates into less fresh vegetables loss to spoilage. Frozen vegetables are harvested and frozen at peak ripeness. The frozen vegetables have already been cleaned and peeled; so by the weight, they are more valuable.
  • Frozen fruit is a budget-friendly food to add variety to your menus. I buy berries, mangos and pineapple in a big bag at Costco; then I’m ready to make some of our favorite meals without cleaning, chopping, and fixing those fresh fruits.
  • Cutting up a head of fresh lettuce is pretty fast. It may not be worth the premium for buying the bag of prepared lettuce.
  • Stock your pantry with staples (like tomato sauce, canned tomatoes, canned beans, flour, bread crumbs, and on and on); they’re almost always less at the big box stores (think Costco, WalMart, Target). Even if you shop at a neighborhood store for some items, consider a trip to the big box to do your staple shopping.
  • Beans are generally most cost effective if purchased dry; but if you don’t have the time to cook, canned is a great option. Beans are a celebrated bargain. If you have some time on the weekend or a pressure cooker, consider making a big batch and freezing in recipe ready plastic bags. Maybe putting the same amount in a plastic bag as would come in a 15 ounce can. If you use the canned beans; purchase the low sodium varieties and/or rinse them before use.
  • Brown rice and whole grain pasta are two budget friendly staples to stock on your shelf.
  • Plain oatmeal is a nourishing bargain. At our home we put our own sweetener, a little cinnamon and measured oats in a sandwich zip bag. Cereal morning is a snap. We add one packet, the water and frozen fruit and pop in the microwave. If we have fresh fruit, we add it after the microwave.
  • Seafood does not need to break the budget. Canned tuna, canned salmon, frozen fish can often be found at bargain prices.
  • Eggs are another renowned bargain food. There are literally thousands of ways to use eggs. Buying them in the big box store helps assure that they’re turning over stock rapidly. One hint that is a standard at our home is having hard-boiled eggs on hand. Each week the eggs are “boiled” in an egg cooker, which is a little appliance that the eggs are placed into and always come out perfect. Then the eggs are put into the fridge and sit and await our need for a quick addition of protein food. One of those regular uses is in main dish salads.
  • Nonfat or low fat milk doesn’t cost more.
  • Getting off soda is also a way to manage the food budget. We’ve purchased a pitcher called an infuser. We frequently put diced cucumbers in the central part, which flavors the water. It’s been very thirst quenching and a painless way to move away from soda pop. Citrus and/or berries are another tasty option.
  • Peanuts are legumes and a good source of protein, fiber, vitamin, and other nutrients. They’re relatively budget friendly and make a perfect addition to meals or snacks. Peanut butter (I like the kind without the added sugar or other oils.) in general is a great bargain; both nutritionally and economically.
  • Sliced almonds purchased in a large bag and stocked in our freezer is one economical way we add interest, flavor, nutrition and crunch to our oatmeal or shredded wheat.
  • Surprisingly boneless, skinless chicken breasts (no waste) can often be found for $2.77 a pound. I prefer to use it instead of buying ground meat at the butcher’s.
  • Popcorn – a whole grain, is a healthy and delicious snack. Can you (or should you) keep your hand out of the kids snack?
  • Canned pumpkin is a nutritional powerhouse and a bargain. It can be added to curries, veggie burgers, muffins, smoothies, and soups.
  • Carrots, onions, celery, apples, oranges, kale, beets, broccoli, cabbage are a few produce items that pop into my mind, when I think of produce that can last in the refrigerator for quite a while.
  • Consider the store brand. Sometimes it makes little difference when you’re adding the item to a recipe. This particular rule of thumb still amazes me. It’s definitely functioning as a heuristic in my mind.
  • Cook a big batch of brown rice and keep in the fridge and then you’re ready to accompany your recipe with a whole grain without waiting for the hour to cook it.
  • Consider a meatless meal from time to time. One way is to do a vegan meal (like tofu based stir-fry; or an eggs/cheese based meal; or canned salmon or tuna based meal. Or if that doesn’t work, maybe just start with making stir-fry, soup or casserole to reduce the amount of meat.

Time limitations mean that most of us have to rely on some heuristics; but if we discover that we’re relying on one that is broken, or contrived and promoted by marketers; then recognize that and build yourself a new one. You can definitely remodel your set of heuristics. And you can definitely eat very healthily on a budget.