The researchers, led by Jonathon Schuldt from California State University, Northridge, said that ethical production methods may lead to a ‘healthy halo’ effect, whereby consumers link certain values with the perception of better nutritional value.
They designed two studies, the first of which surveyed 56 consumers online, and found that consumers judged chocolate described as ‘fair trade’ as lower in calories. The second study involved 192 university students, and revealed a similar effect, with study participants judging chocolate to be lower in calories when a company was described as treating its workers ethically, rather than unethically – that is, providing excellent wages and health care, compared to poor wages and no health care.
The researchers found that the effect was strongest for those with strong ethical food values.
The study’s authors wrote that their findings may have implications for obesity and industry oversight.
“Despite high demand for ethical foods, there is relatively little government regulation of ethics or values-based claims, ‘‘organic’’ being the notable exception,” Schuldt and colleagues wrote, citing Fairtrade International as one example of the many independent organizations that certify producers and enforce labeling standards for a wide range of on-pack ethical claims.
“To the extent that such claims encourage consumers to view poor nutrition foods as healthy, the government might seek to regulate their appearance on food packaging as they currently do for other types of claim,” they wrote.
This is not the first time that researchers have found a health halo associated with unrelated label claims. Last April, Cornell researchers found that consumers perceived processed foods to be tastier, healthier and lower in calories when they were told the foods were organic.
Source: Social Psychological and Personality Science
Authors: Jonathon P. Schuldt, Dominique Muller, and Norbert Schwarz