Study author Jenny Wan-chen Lee, a graduate student at Cornell University's Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, said she has long been interested in a possible ‘halo’ effect of organic labeling, by which she means that many people consider ‘organic’ to be a positive attribute that can then positively affect their perception of the product’s other characteristics.
To test her theory, Lee conducted a double-blind controlled trial in which 144 participants were asked to evaluate various attributes of what they thought were regular and organic varieties of chocolate sandwich cookies, plain yogurt, and potato chips. In fact, all the products were identical pairs of organic foods.
Lee told FoodNavigator-USA: “There’s this widespread perception that organic is healthier. We wanted to see whether this applied to organic processed foods in particular, and foods [like cookies and potato chips] that people generally don’t associate with either organic or health.”
Participants were asked to rate the foods on a scale of 1 to 9 for various attributes, including overall taste and perception of fat content. In addition, the researchers asked them to estimate the number of calories in each item and to specify how much they would be willing to pay.
They found that participants tended to prefer almost all of the taste attributes for the products labeled ‘organic’, even though they were identical to the products labeled ‘regular’. In terms of healthfulness, participants tended to rate the organic-labeled cookies and chips as more nutritious than their regular-labeled counterparts.
Products labeled organic were also judged to be lower in calories and to warrant higher prices, and were perceived to be higher in fiber and lower in fat.
“The most statistically significant result we found was that the organic foods were considered to be lower in calories,” Lee said.
She said the results could have important implications in terms of what and how much people eat, particularly if they tend to seek out foods that carry an organic label.
“Having this organic label may lead people to underestimate the number of calories in a food product or feel that they can indulge,” she said.
The results of the study were presented as part of the scientific program of the American Society for Nutrition annual meeting on April 10.