Prestigious foods – which are often associated with healthy eating – are a social status symbol which could encourage consumers to spend more, the team wrote in the journal Applied Economics.
As a result, sellers are able to hike up prices.
However, those placing importance on prestige were in the minority. For almost 70% of study participants – known as ‘utilitarian’ buyers – the social status of products did not play a part in purchasing decisions.
Since many prestigious foods are associated with good nutrition, it could mean healthy eating guidelines are rendered unsuccessful because of the high costs associated with recommended foods, the team warned.
“In the age of juicing trends and celebrities turning into clean-diet cookbook authors, the connection consumers make between health and food has become much stronger,” the team, led by Marco Palma, Texas A&M University, said.
“The increasing gap in food prices associated with diet quality may be reflecting the reality of a lower purchase capacity by low-income consumers,” they added, noting, “the reality is that the cost of healthy and nutritious food may be too high for some consumers to bear, deeming health promotion policies ineffective.”
It is the cost differential that has opened the door for food to become a symbol of social status, the researchers added.
The study follows previous research suggesting health is not necessarily top of the list as a driver for purchasing decisions.
The researchers quizzed 201 people over nine sessions, with the participants split into groups of around 25. The aim was to investigate how prestige-seeking behaviour influences food choices.
Activities included submitting a sealed bid in an auction for eight vegetable products; organic, conventional and hydroponically produced green lettuce and red lettuce, hydroponically produced red-and-green mixed lettuce and spinach.
The second highest bid was accepted as the market price, with the highest bidder purchasing the product at said cost. Some were given labelling information and told about production methods.
Beside the utilitarian buyers, the participants included ‘ambitious shoppers’ with lower incomes willing to spend more on prestigious foods for the higher social status they afford. Other prestige seekers included higher income ‘affluent elitists’ and ‘prestige lovers’, motivated by a desire to differentiate themselves from people of a lower social status.
The three prestige-driven groups identified could be the most likely early adopters of new production technologies since they are more responsive to labelling, the team note.
They “responded positively to labelling information, implying that sellers may be able to boost premium prices of prestige-seeking individuals through customer education and marketing,” the team said.
However, the practice of increasing healthy food costs is not necessarily a new one, the researchers concede, noting prices of fruits and vegetables started to rise much faster than fats and sugar as early as the mid-1980s.
“There is evidence (…) linking food choices and diet quality with income,” the team said.
Source: Applied Economics
Published online ahead of print, DOI: 10.1080/00036846.2016.1194965
“Fashionable food: a latent class analysis of social status in food purchases”
Authors: Marco Palma, Meghan Ness, David Anderson