We’ll pay more for the foods we’re craving

(Credit: m01229/Flickr)

When we’re craving unhealthy foods, we’re willing to pay more for them, new research indicates. The study also shows that we’re willing to pay disproportionately more for bigger portion sizes of the food items we crave.

The research, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, identifies an obstacle to healthy living.

“In other words, craving Snickers does not make you hungrier; it makes you desire Snickers specifically…”

“Our results indicate that even if people strive to eat healthier, craving could overshadow the importance of health by boosting the value of tempting, unhealthy foods relative to healthier options,” explains lead author Anna Konova, a postdoctoral researcher in New York University’s Center for Neural Science.

“Craving, which is pervasive in daily life, may nudge our choices in very specific ways that help us acquire those things that made us feel good in the past—even if those things may not be consistent with our current health goals.”

There’s growing interest across several sectors—marketing, psychology, economics, and medicine—in understanding how our psychological states and physiological needs affect our behavior as consumers. Of particular concern is craving, which researchers have long recognized as a state of mind that contributes to addiction and, in recent years, to eating disorders and obesity.

Yet, the researchers note, little is known about the nature of craving and its impact on our choices and behavior.

In their study, the scientists conducted a series of experiments that asked subjects to indicate how much they’d pay for certain snack foods after they developed a craving for one of them—significant differences in a desire for a specific food item (e.g., a Snickers or granola bar) before and after exposure to the item constituted cravings.

The results show that people were willing to pay more for the same exact snack food item after exposure to it and researchers asked them to recall specific memories of consumption of this item, relative to before this exposure. Notably, this was the case even if the study’s subjects were hungry before and after the exposure, suggesting that craving and hunger are partly distinct experiences.

“In other words, craving Snickers does not make you hungrier; it makes you desire Snickers specifically,” explains study coauthor and research assistant professor Kenway Louie, who adds that there was also a spillover effect as it applied, to some degree, to similar food items that subjects were never exposed to (e.g., other chocolate, nut, and caramel candy bars).

Obesity may make ignoring ‘food cues’ even harder

Moreover, the researchers found stronger effects—bigger changes in the willingness to pay for an item the subjects craved—when the items were higher-calorie, higher-fat/sugar content foods, such as a chocolate bar or cheese puffs, relative to healthier options (e.g., a granola bar).

Finally, the experiments revealed a connection among craving, portion, and price. That is, people were willing to pay disproportionately more for higher portion sizes of the items they craved.

“It appears that craving boosts or multiplies the economic value of the craved food,” says Konova.

Grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, and the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation supported the work.

Source: New York University