New Scientist article A study by researchers at the University of Cambridge has found that people are far more likely to associate the term “good” with food than it is with alcohol, even when it’s not clear which drink or food is being offered.
The research, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, used online surveys to test how consumers perceive good and bad food in a range of popular brands, including McDonald’s and Domino’s.
They found that “good food” is often more associated with products with high-profile marketing.
For example, the popular McDonald’s “McFlurry” was described as “one of the most popular brands of pizza in the world”, and it is also available in the UK.
But the researchers say it “had a reputation for being the least nutritious of the brands on offer” – meaning the public was less likely to perceive the product as a good value.
The findings are important because they highlight the need for food manufacturers to rethink their packaging practices, they say.
In addition, they suggest that consumers could be less willing to pay more for foods when the price is lower.
In a study published last year, for example, researchers at Stanford University found that when consumers pay more, they are more likely “to feel more good about what they’re paying for”, which is “more consistent with the idea that people pay more to feel good about something”.
The Cambridge study was the first to test the impact of price on perceptions of food quality.
It used the same online surveys as Stanford, but this time asked people to rate five different food brands, from “cheapest” to “most expensive”.
They found that consumers were less likely than in the Stanford study to consider a product’s quality “good”, as a result of the “cheapness” label.
It’s possible that the differences between the Stanford and Cambridge surveys are due to the way respondents rated the different food categories, and the way they rated them, compared with their own personal experiences of eating food.
But Dr Rachael Kelleher, who led the Cambridge study, said she was concerned that consumers “don’t know the difference between good and poor quality”.
The researchers also compared the ratings of the five food brands they tested to those of consumers of similar types of products.
They looked at the perceived value of the product, not the actual price, and found that the perception of quality was significantly higher for products that were “more expensive” than for those that were more affordable.
For instance, the researchers found that if you were offered a cheap hamburger at a McDonald’s restaurant, the perception that you were being “charged more than the value of what you were buying” would be more likely than if the same hamburger were offered at a supermarket.
In this case, they found that in general, the perceived quality of the food you’re buying is higher if you’re offered the same product at a higher price.
This could explain why people tend to believe “good quality” is associated with cheaper, higher-priced products.
The researchers found a similar pattern for food packaging.
“The packaging is associated more strongly with perceived quality when people are paying more for the product than if they’re not,” they write.
“In other words, the price of a product matters more when people perceive quality than it does when they perceive the price.”
Dr Kelleh’s team is currently conducting a follow-up study to see if consumers are also less likely “good tasting” if they are offered the food they want at a lower price.
They’re also interested in whether consumers’ perceptions of “good taste” is influenced by the “price” of the meal.