When it comes to purchasing food, price often guides our decision-making. We tend to believe that anything more expensive is also of higher quality. This perception can be true, but only to a certain extent.

Since the 1970s, the relationship between food prices and their quality has been the subject of numerous scientific studies. The idea for analysis primarily stemmed from consumer behaviour, with many assuming that price always reflects the quality of products.

Several researchers, including Friedmand, Sproles, and Riesz, found a positive relationship between the objective quality of products—based on characteristics such as taste, durability, safety, or design—and their price. Furthermore, in most situations, the relationship was negative, meaning that price did not reflect the actual quality of the products. Unfortunately, the situation remains similar today, and the price of products continues to be a deceptive benchmark of quality.

What leads us astray?

If price does not consistently reflect quality, then why do we not realise it? The first reason is the perception created by higher prices. Dr. Brian Wansink, from Cornell University, studied the relationship between price and perceptions of food quality among 139 individuals.

In the experiment, participants were given the option to pay $4 or $8 for a menu without knowing that the food was the same. Surprisingly, the majority of those who chose the more expensive menu rated the food as better than those with the cheaper menu, as noted by Medical Daily. Wansink’s conclusion was that higher prices make us appreciate the food more, even though it may be qualitatively equal to other cheaper products.

The misconception is also influenced by the packaging of food products. Especially when we’re rushed while shopping, packaging often dictates our buying decisions, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal. And since more expensive products have better quality packaging, we’re inclined to choose them.

Another factor is the inability to test products, which manufacturers also capitalise on. Information asymmetry about products and their diversity are factors that lead to consumer uncertainties about making the right choice. These two factors also prompt manufacturers to sell lower-quality items as high-quality ones. They succeed because those purchasing them don’t have certainty at the time of purchase that there are better products available, concludes George Akerlof, Nobel Prize laureate in Economics, in a study with broader implications for consumer behaviour and the economy as a whole.

The concept of information asymmetry is further supported by Steve Posavac, a marketing professor at Vanderbilt University. His research began with the question: “Why do people sometimes take the bait of a very low price, only to refuse products because they are too cheap at other times?” His answer was formulated into a theory called the “naïve theory.” The main idea behind it is that when we don’t know much about a product, which happens quite often, we fill in the blanks using naive evidence of quality, such as the quantity of products on the shelf.

And the winners are…

Relying on consumers’ inability to accurately assess product quality, manufacturers often take advantage. Wansink illustrates this through the situation in restaurants, where prices are not lowered even if production costs decrease. They would lose customers if they did, he says, because people would believe that quality has been compromised.

When we buy more expensive products, we place trust in those who supply them, believing they wouldn’t compromise their prestige by selling low-quality items. The primary goal of manufacturers is profit, so if there’s a prospect of higher profits without affecting sales volume, some manufacturers don’t hesitate to subtly lower product quality and production costs.

Cheap and good?

The situation regarding food prices and how they reflect quality is far from black and white. In the context of the economic crisis, the tendency is to purchase cheaper products. And while there’s evidence that high prices don’t always reflect quality, it’s equally true that cheap products come with various issues, from ingredients harmful to health to ethically questionable production methods.

The incidence of horse meat products sold cheaper as beef is no longer a novelty. Additionally, cheap food may originate from factories in the third world, where worker exploitation is practised, or from those working in agriculture who receive next to nothing for their products.

It’s clear that in a sea of uncertainties, making the right choice is difficult. However, there is a solution that could help us reduce the risk of being deceived, and that is education about nutrition. Considering the significant influence food has on individual well-being, our effort to become aware of what we eat seems insignificant. Although initially challenging, the initiative to analyse and compare prices, ingredients, and even the conditions under which these products are produced has positive long-term effects—both on health and on our wallets.

Andreea Irimia teaches computer science and technological education.