Study reveals the ‘health halo’ of organic foods

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nutrition, Organic food

Study reveals the ‘health halo’ of organic foods
Consumers may consider organic cookies, yogurt and potato chips to be tastier, healthier and lower in calories because they carry an organic label, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Cornell.

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.

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4 comments

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Organic. It's a scam

Posted by Concerned consumer,

-The organic industry has done a great job of misleading consumers. The halo effect is evidence of their success.
-In too many cases, the laws that govern organic food production are simply not followed or enforced.
-Organic farming uses plenty of pesticides results in more soil erosion than conventional farming.
-Organic farming has proven to be unsustainable. At this point it has been reduced to less than one percent of all farming in the United States. Organic farms are continuing to decline in number and acreage.
-Organic farming is wasteful and uses more natural resources per acre than conventional farming.
-Organic, local, sustainable are terms that should raise a red flag whenever you see them. Most of it is fake.

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We need a cure for Stupidity

Posted by Jon Yaffe,

Cute study - implying a consumer misperception-based link between organic foods and obesity. The organic food industry should take note, and offer more education to promote more accurate understanding of organics merit.

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Thanks for the article

Posted by Dr. Mark Haub,

It's interesting how allusion of human health is used to sell products yet actual support is not referenced -- that is, it is, also, unproven that organic food is not associated with weight gain in those consumers. If those consumers are reflective of the general public, then their metabolism is likely tied to their organic food choices, right?

It's entertaining observing those with a bias defend a stance (on any side, not just this one -- your local/small farm story and even the story you wrote about me). Being in academe and above the fray is definitely a comfortable realm to reside.

Thanks again and keep up the good work Caroline. -- Mark D Haub, PhD

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