FoodFacts.com consistently adds organic food products to our database. There are so many reasons for consumers to consider organic alternatives to common food products … organics generally don’t contain controversial ingredients or genetically modified ingredients. In addition, many organic products contain less calories, fats, sugar and sodium than their traditional counterparts. That’s not to say, however, that we should refrain from reading labels for organic products. There are those that aren’t stellar … and even some whose non-organic counterparts present consumers with better choices. We’re stalwart label readers. And we encourage our community to follow suit. We are concerned that the word “organic” can automatically lead consumers to relate a product with a healthy option.
An organic food label can be a very powerful persuader in consumer purchasing decisions. This has been dubbed the “Health Halo Effect.” Consumers can be biased towards organic products simply because they are labeled organic. A new study from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab has now shown that an organic label can have even greater influence than previously thought. Not only can consumers relate organic products to health. Those labels can also significantly alter the consumers’ view of a products taste, calorie content and nutritional value.
Researchers recruited 115 participants from a shopping mall in Ithaca, New York for the study. The participants were each presented with three pairs of products – two yogurt products, two cookie products and two potato chip products. They had labeled one product from each pair as organic, while the other was labeled “regular”. The participants were actually tricked. Every product they were presented with was, in fact, organic. In fact the pairs were actually identical products. Participants were asked to rate the taste of each item, as well as estimate the calorie count for each. They were also asked how much they would be willing to pay for each product sampled. A questionnaire was given to each that inquired about their environmental and shopping habits.
Even though these foods were all the same, the “organic” label greatly influenced people’s perceptions. The participants all estimated that the cookie and yogurt products that were labeled organic had significantly fewer calories than the “regular” products. People stated that they were willing to pay over 23% more for those products labeled organic. In addition to their assumptions regarding the caloric content of the organic products, participants said that these products tasted like they were lower in fat than those that were labeled “regular”. They told the research that all the products labeled as “organic” were more nutritious than those labeled “regular” – even the cookies and chips. The yogurt was judged to be more flavorful when labeled organic and the chips appeared to be more appetizing. “Regular” cookies were reported to taste better – possibly because people often believe healthy foods are not tasty. The products , labeled as organic were obviously wearing a “Health Halo”, since the foods labeled as “regular” weren’t regular at all.
The questionnaire helped to better determine who is most susceptible to this “Health Halo” effect. People who regularly read nutrition labels, regularly purchase organic foods and exhibit pro-environmental behaviors like recycling were less susceptible to the organic “Health Halo” effect. Those consumers whose habits did not include these actions were more prone to believe that the products were completely different and that the organic product had to be better simply because it was labeled as “organic”.
FoodFacts.com finds this information somewhat troubling. Not all organic products are created equally. While most are, in fact, superior to their non-organic counterparts, consumers still need to read labels to be certain of the ingredients and nutritional value of every product they consume. Reading and understanding food labels is key to a healthy diet and should be a habit to which every consumer commits, regardless of the words they find on a package.