Halloween might be over, but health nuts should still beware. New research suggests that credit cards, more than trick-or-treating, can lead to unhealthy food choices.
According to a new study by the Journal of Consumer Research conducted in part by a Binghamton University professor, researchers looked at the shopping baskets of 1,000 randomly-selected families over a period of six months and found that the consumers who paid with plastic had more unhealthy items than those who paid with cash.
The research began when professor Kalpesh Kaushik Desai of Binghamton University, professor Manoj Thomas of Cornell University and doctoral candidate Satheeshkumar Seenivasan of SUNY Buffalo all found that there was a relationship in the data they collected at SUNY Buffalo’s Center for Relationship Marketing.
The correlation they noticed was between the use of credit cards and unhealthy contents of household purchases.
SUNY Buffalo’s School of Management has a center for relationship marketing that tracks certain trends and provides an outlet for this type of research. They have access to data about modes of payment. The identities of the shoppers are anonymous, but they have access to a database that shows these purchases over time.
According to Desai, the team noticed a correlation, and he wanted to know why.
‘We wanted to know: Why does this effect occur?’ he said. He and the other researchers ran several experiments on actual consumers, students and other shoppers as well.
‘Generally, not only pertaining to food, a lot of research has shown how using credit cards in general makes people overspend. The reason is clear: When you use cash, a certain pain is involved. There is an emotional aspect to parting with cash,’ Desai said. ‘Credit cards are a less vivid way of paying, and we don’t think twice.’
Desai said that using cash can have the opposite effect.
‘Cash can help you regulate your purchases,’ he said. ‘When you use a credit card you seem to get carried away, and it is harder to stop yourself.’
Bettina Ritter, a sophomore double-majoring in biology and linguistics, believes this study accurately describes her own spending.
‘It’s like paying with a card doesn’t have any material effect on your wallet, paralleling with the fact that the food you’re buying won’t have an effect on your waistline,’ Ritter said. ‘All my impulse buys are using my credit card.’
The study also found that two specific populations were buying more unhealthy food with their credit cards. One group was those facing certain economic difficulties, as they tended to buy cheaper and less healthy foods, and were commonly not paying in cash. The other group was composed of those trying to accumulate ‘flyer points’ to get free airline tickets by using their credit cards.
According to Desai, this is a significant health issue for consumers not only in the U.S, but also in other countries, because people are unable to resist the temptation of buying unhealthy food. The study has attracted attention worldwide. Media outlets in England, Canada, Germany, India, Australia and Romania all have taken notice.
‘There really has been wide coverage,’ he said. ‘The point is the study has made people aware.’
This conflict concerning mode of payment may relate to BU students using their meal plan cards to pay for food. In the case of students, it seems that the amount of food is more of an issue than the quality.
For Tareq Haddad, a junior majoring in finance, using his meal card causes him to eat more.
‘I think this issue is definitely applicable to meal plans, as I am currently on $6 on my meal plan, and it’s only halfway through the semester. If I bought everything with cash, I know I would be generally eating a lot less,’ he explained.
Desai said the pain of paying in cash comes from a stronger impression of the transaction.
‘You can see something being parted and it’s much more alive,’ he said.
The study has brought to attention two essential problems: one in the spending, and another in the health of consumers. Professor Desai hopes that the research has made people more aware.
‘It is hard for change,’ he said. ‘The main question is after people read this, will they still use credit cards?’