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Do Organic Food Labels Mislead Consumers?

April 11, 2011

Does labeling food as organic mislead the brain into thinking it is better tasting and healthier than it actually is?

Jenny Wan-Chen Lee, a graduate student in Cornell University, in New York, offers evidence that people may consume a higher amount of calories at fast-food restaurants that claim to serve ‘healthier’ foods, compared to the amount they eat at a typical burger bar.

Lee asked 144 subjects at a local store to compare what they were told to be conventionally and organically produced chocolate sandwich cookies, plain yogurt, and potato chips. However, all of the food products were of the organic variety, they were just labeled as being regular or organic.

Participants were then asked to rate each food on a scale of 1 – 9 for 10 different attributes (e.g., overall taste, perception of fat content). She also asked them to estimate the number of calories in each food item.

The study, released at the American Society for Nutrition annual conference, revealed that on average consumers rated the organic labeled items a full mark up the scale when it came to health. They also considered it to contain on average 60 fewer calories.

An increasing number of studies are indicating that a ‘halo’ effect may apply to foods, and ultimately influence what and how much we eat.

For instance, research has shown that people tend to consume more calories at fast-food restaurants claiming to serve so-called healthier foods, compared to the amount they eat at a typical burger place.

A halo effect would be positive feelings attributed to a product or person we associate with other favorable impressions. In other words, people perceiving a food to be more nutritious may tend to let their guard down when it comes to being careful about counting calories””ultimately leading them to overeat or feel entitled to indulge.

Specifically, some people mistakenly assume that organic foods will be more nutritious because they carry an organic label. This theory has been in long debate among nutrition researchers.

Subjects reported preferring the taste characteristics of the organically-labeled foods, even though they were actually identical to their conventionally-labeled counterparts.

Foods labeled organic were also perceived to be much lower in calorie count and a higher price for the items was expected. Overall, organically-labeled chips and cookies were considered to be more nutritious than their “non-organic” counterparts.

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