Does putting an organic label on a food make the food seem healthier than it really is? Apparently so, according to a new study from Cornell University, published in the journal Food Quality and Preference. Organic foods have a healthy image in general. People often assume that if the foods are healthy in one aspect (such as for the environment and farm workers), they are virtuous in all ways—even though this is not the case. This is called the “health halo” effect.
Researchers recruited 115 people between the ages of 16 to 76 and had them taste three pairs of foods (yogurt, potato chips and cookies). In each pair, one sample was labeled “organic,” the other “regular.” Participants were also able to view the food packages, half of which prominently carried organic seals. They then answered questions about the foods’ nutritional and sensory attributes. All pretty straightforward. But here’s the kicker: The foods in each pair were actually the same—all were organic.
Thanks largely to the health halo effect, the participants ranked all the “organic” foods as lower in calories and fat and higher in fiber than the “regular” ones. The “organic” chips and cookies were also rated as more nutritious than the regular ones. (“Organic” yogurt was not, though, possibly because all yogurt is generally considered healthy.) Moreover, the participants were willing to pay 16 to 23 percent more for the foods labeled organic.
Do people think organic foods look and taste better? Yes, in some cases, but the results were not consistent. For instance, the “organic” chips were considered more appetizing and the “organic” yogurt more flavorful, compared to those foods without the label. On the other hand, the “organic” cookies were deemed less tasty than the regular cookies, possibly because “consumers hold a misleading, yet common, view that most healthy foods taste bad and most unhealthy foods taste good,” the researchers noted.
A previous study from the University of Michigan had similar findings. Participants thought that organic cookies had fewer calories and thus that they could eat more of them.
Bottom line: Don’t be influenced by the health halo effect. The term “organic” refers only to the agricultural method, not to the nutrition or taste of the food. Organic foods—notably sweets and snacks—can be just as sugary, fatty, salty and caloric as non-organic foods, or even more so. To know what you’re getting, always read and compare nutrition labels.