The presence of organic labels on food items leads consumers to believe that tastier and healthier fare will be found behind them. According to a new study led by Jenny Wan-Chen Lee, a graduate student in Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, food items having organic labels were perceived to be higher in fiber, as well as lower in fat and calories, making them worth paying extra dollars for them. The findings were recently presented at the annual conference of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
The research revealed that even when it comes to chips and cookies, organic labels are viewed as a stamp of approval among consumers when selecting snacks they consider to be more nutritious. In addition, the findings suggest that people who choose to consume only organic foods could find themselves packing on the pounds.
For their study, the researchers asked 144 shoppers to compare what they believed to be conventionally and organically produced chocolate sandwich cookies, plain yogurt and potato chips. Although all of the products were organic, they were labeled as being either regular or organic. Using a scale of 1 to 9 for rating each product on 10 different attributes, the participants were ask to weigh-in their opinions regarding aspects such as overall taste, perception of fat content, estimation of calories contained, and the price they would be willing to pay.
Findings showed that the study participants favored nearly all of the taste characteristics of those foods labeled as being organic, although they were identical to those labeled as being regular. In addition, the foods labled organic were judged as having an average of 60 less calories than regular items.
Lee believes this to be an example of the “halo effect,” a term used in marketing to explain the bias shown by customers towards certain products because of a favorable experience with other products made by the same manufacturer or maker. In this case, the perception that a food item labeled organic is nutritious would lead consumers to believe that the food tastes better.
Although the study focused only on snack foods, questions have previously been raised about the health benefits of more traditional organic foods. Lee pointed out, “The emergence and growing popularity of organic snack foods has led to some concern, as these foods may not necessarily be healthier than their non-organic counterparts, but still may lead consumers to be susceptible to nutritional misjudgements.” She then warned, “If people perceive a food to be more nutritious they tend to let their guard down when it comes to counting calories—ultimately leading them to overeat or feel entitled to indulge.”
A large-scale study performed in 2009 found that organically-produced fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs and dairy products to provide no additional nutrition or health benefits in comparison to other foods. However, critics argue that the study did not give any consideration to the possible side-effects of pesticides, nor did they consider the welfare of livestock.
According to the Soil Association, “People are buying organic because they know it makes sense for themselves, for wildlife and for the planet.” The agency also pointed out that “Avoiding potentially harmful chemical residues in food is the strongest motivating factor for buying organic products.”
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