Hint: It will save you money.

Grocery shopping has, sadly, become an exercise in avoiding information overload. There are so many signs and banners, flyers, specials, and colorful distracting labels on the food that it is difficult to comb through it all, especially if one is tired at the end of a workday or in a hurry (and who isn’t?). Add to that the sea of facts swimming around in one’s head – knowledge about vitamins and nutrients and fat and calories – and suddenly the quest for a healthy grocery cart is utterly overwhelming.

So what do most shoppers do? They react without thinking. They reach for the expensive item on the shelf, assuming that because it’s expensive, it must also be healthy.

This is fascinating conclusion of a soon-to-be-published study in the Journal of Consumer Research, as described in an article for the Washington Post:

“Researchers say our subconscious association of cost with health — what they call the ‘healthy = expensive intuition’ — can prompt shoppers to not only spend more money but also to make uninformed health decisions without realizing it.”

This phenomenon is called ‘heuristics’ by behavioral scientists, and refers to the common act of using mental shortcuts to simplify decision-making. Unfortunately, this particular heuristic of healthy=expensive could be costing you unnecessary dollars. It is not surprising to scientists, however, who already know that heuristics influence the majority of our food decisions, no matter how well informed we shoppers like to think ourselves.

The study put participants through several trials. One trial had participants guess the price or health value of various new food items. The result? A higher price was consistently assigned to the product that was perceived as healthier.

In another trial, participants were told to select the healthier of two sandwich options: “They consistently picked the more expensive one, even when the researchers switched the prices.”

In a later experiment, participants were asked to choose between two protein bars, one which cost $4 and the other 99 cents. The latter received much more scrutiny, likely because the participants couldn’t believe a healthy bar could cost so little.

Part of the problem is that many food companies have created healthy-ish food products that are fancily packaged and sold at marked-up prices. If you’re willing to do a bit more cooking and preparation, then it’s easy to purchase basic ingredients at a much-reduced cost, i.e. soaking and cooking your own dried beans, instead of buying $3 cans of organic cooked beans.

Other studies have found that it is actually cheaper to eat well, following a Mediterranean-style diet, than it is to eat typically American, which contains more junk food than a person should ever eat.

In other words, this study is happy news for those who people have made New Year’s resolutions to eat more healthily in 2017. It doesn’t have to cost as much as you think! In fact, you can save money while you’re at it.