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.