Consumers’ inferences of product naturalness and healthiness: the role of ingredient quantity and labeling
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Consumers often desire to eat healthy foods, yet a food’s healthiness is an unobservable attribute. Consumers, therefore, often rely on external cues to draw conclusions about healthiness. In this research, I find that the number of ingredients in a product branded as healthy can bias these conclusions. In contrast to the frequency heuristic, which has consistently found that “more is better,” I find that consumers perceive foods containing more ingredients to be less natural and thus less healthy than foods with few ingredients, even when all ingredients are believed to be natural on their own. This is because consumers infer products with more ingredients are more likely to originate from a complex production process that requires more human intervention. I then found that consumers prefer products with fewer ingredients when pursuing a health-related goal in contrast to when the goal is maximizing the pleasure of consumption. Given that the ingredient quantity in a product is difficult to alter, I show that grouping a large number of ingredients into a small number of categories attenuates negative inferences that are based on ingredient quantity. Thus, the current research uncovers a new factor that shapes product naturalness and healthiness judgments, advances existing understanding of how perceived process complexity contributes to naturalness judgments, and suggests interventions for marketers to promote naturalness and healthiness perceptions.