“Organic” Doesn’t Mean “Healthy”

by Sandy Todd Webster on Apr 30, 2013


With so much emphasis on organic, non-GMO foods these days, many consumers are under the false impression that foods labeled “organic” are bound to be healthy.

Not so. An ooey-gooey-chewy fudge brownie by any other name is still packed with fat and calories and will bust a diet just as fast as its nonorganic chocolaty cousin.

A recent study by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab researchers set out to discover what factors an “organic” food label might influence. Results revealed that beyond giving the product a favorable health bias, an “organic” label could significantly alter perceptions of taste, calories and value. Some people appeared to be more susceptible to this “health halo” effect than others.

According to a summary by lead author Wan-chen Jenny Lee, 115 people were recruited from a local shopping mall in Ithaca, New York, to participate in the study. Subjects were asked to evaluate three pairs of products—two yogurts, two cookies and two potato chip portions. One item from each food pair was labeled “organic,” while the other was labeled “regular.” The twist? All product pairs were organic and identical. Participants were asked to rate the taste and caloric content of each item, and how much they would be willing to pay for each. A questionnaire also inquired about each person’s environmental and shopping habits.

“Even though these foods were all the same, the ‘organic’ label greatly influenced people’s perceptions,” reported Lee. “The cookies and yogurt were estimated to have significantly fewer calories when labeled ‘organic,’ and people were willing to pay up to 23.4% more for them. The nutritional aspects of these foods were also greatly biased by the health halo effect. The ‘organic’ cookies and yogurt were said to taste ‘lower in fat’ than the ‘regular’ variety, and the ‘organic’ cookies and chips were thought to be more nutritious!

“The label even tricked people’s taste buds: when perceived as ‘organic,’ chips seemed more appetizing and yogurt was judged to be more flavorful. ‘Regular’ cookies were reported to taste better—possibly because people often believe healthy foods are not tasty. All of these foods were exactly the same, but a simple organic label made all the difference.”

Armed with this knowledge, you can coach clients to help themselves by teaching them to evaluate food package marketing and nutrition labels with a more critical eye.

IDEA Food and Nutrition Tips, Volume 2, Issue 3

© 2013 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Sandy Todd Webster

Sandy Todd Webster IDEA Author/Presenter

Sandy Todd Webster is Editor in Chief of IDEA's publications, including the award-winning IDEA FITNESS JOURNAL, the health and fitness industry's leading resource for fitness and wellness professional...


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  • James Van Sciver

    Very important. We just moved from Hawaii to Georgia and noticed the "organic" craze. Sure, we stocked up on some, but still focus on natural v. processed. It is hard at times.
    Commented May 23, 2013
  • Susan mcdonald

    Really? Is there an organic versus non-organic "issue?" That's like saying eating a diet that sustains human health and the health of the environment is debatable. The only "issue" is that some people believe is organic is more expensive. Considering the soaring cost of doctors visits and Rx medicines to treat lifestyle related disorders -- cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity to name a few -- unprocessed organic food with no pesticides, GMOs or chemical additives is a bargain at ten times the cost. As far as gooey-chewy chocolate gunk, well, duh.
    Commented May 23, 2013
  • Michelle Villmer

    Definately a great reminder! Those marketing people know how to reel them in!
    Commented May 23, 2013
  • Sandy Todd Webster

    Hi Millie, Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I couldn't agree more that this doesn't even scratch the surface of the organic vs. non organic issue. Entire books have been written on the various aspects of it your mention. However, the purpose of showcasing this research study was to inform people that just because a product is marketed with a strong organic brand, it doesn't mean it belongs in your diet. There are plenty of processed "junk foods" with organic ingredients, but they still contain the salt-sugar-fat trio of culprits that get many people into trouble with their eating. We were simply trying to underscore that consumers (and health professionals who guide them) should be aware that this misconception exists--and that it confuses people and throws them off track.
    Commented May 22, 2013
  • Millie Meng

    Organic is actually the healthier choice. The article addresses fat and sugar in brownies, which are not necessarily healthy ingredients, regardless of being organic. However, organic ingredients are "healthier" in the big picture. The article does not address health effects such as disease for farm workers exposed to pesticides, and the terrible effects of pesticides on the environment, such as in our watersheds. The article also brings up studies about the perception of calories and taste regarding use of the word "organic." Those studies are really about the marketing of things labeled organic, and not about science based facts regarding actual organic farming and organic goods. In the big picture, organic is much healthier for people and our environment.
    Commented May 22, 2013

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