Beyond Organic’s Health Halo

October 8, 2013 in Food Economics, Foodland, General, Nutritionism, Psychology of Food by Joyce Bunderson

In my own family cooking, I shop organic when it is natural, not processed, and not overly price-inflated; but I’m convinced that the term “organic” is increasingly being used to include un-natural substances and to justify increased prices.  A good statement of the Organic Skeptic position is found in the Eden Foods website.  They certify their natural foods by a process that includes and exceeds the best that the USDA demands for organic certification. They point out that Congress in 2005 voted to allow toxic synthetic ingredients in organic food, that the USDA stacked the National Organic Substances Board with corporate and special interest groups, who are further degrading what the word “organic” should mean.  In our family cooking, I am attracted to whole, natural foods that bear good evidence of being grown organically, but dismiss processed products that flaunt the label “organic” like a magic word that always invokes “healthier”.

The general public is paying more and making foolish assumptions about what having the “organic” label on a food means. A recent research project shows how hollow the “organic” label can be, yet how powerful the “organic halo effect” is in influencing the behavior and purchasing attitudes of uniformed consumers. As you may know from my past writing, I really like the creative thinking and research of Brian Wansink, PhD, Cornell’s John Dyson Professor of Consumer Behavior and Director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab. He’s the Mindless Eating author and much, much more. This summer Wansink and others published You taste what you see: Do organic labels bias taste perceptions? This research is follow-up research based upon studies that have shown that the label ‘organic’ can lead us to believe that a food is healthier. This effect is known as the ‘health halo effect.’ What this study set out to learn is, how does the ‘organic’ label influence perceptions of taste, calories and value?

In essence, the 115 participants evaluated 3 pairs of products; 2 yogurts, 2 cookies and 2 potato chips. One of each pair was labeled ‘organic’ and the other was ‘regular.’ As so often is Wansink’s research style, there was a trick. All the products were organic and identical, except for the word ‘organic’ on the packaging. The participants saw the packaging, tasted the products, then rated the taste, caloric content and how much they would be willing to pay for the items. The participants also answered a questionnaire about their environmental and shopping habits.

As it seems to me, Wansink’s clever research uncovered some interesting facts. The ‘organic’ label greatly influenced people’s opinions. Both the cookies and yogurt were estimated to have significantly fewer calories when labeled ‘organic’ and people were willing to pay up to 23.4% more for them. In addition, the participants perceived that the nutritional aspects of the ‘organics’ to be more favorable. For example, the ‘organic’ cookies and yogurt were deemed to be lower in fat and calories, than the ‘regular’.  Also, the organic cookies and chips were thought to be more nutritious. And don’t forget the taste. The ‘organic’ label hoax led the participants to judge the ‘organic’ chips to be more appetizing; and the yogurt to be more flavorful. The really funny thing is that the ‘regular’ cookies were reported to taste better; the researchers are guessing that this result is because people believe healthy foods are not tasty.

The questionnaire uncovered who was most susceptible to being misled by the ‘organic’ label. It was not those who routinely read nutrition labels, buy organic food; or exhibit pro-environmental behaviors (recycling or hiking). So take a hike and read a label, and you will be less likely to be suckered by the organic halo.

Be careful when you’re shopping, especially for snack/junk food. I spent a couple of minutes online and with my calculator. This is what I discovered:

  • Organic ginger snaps for $9.92 per pound
  • Eco Planet Vanilla cookies $14.00 per pound
  • Chocolate chip cookies $9.00 per pound
  • Organic cheese puffs  $12.46
  • Organic lollipops (straight sugar) $10.81
  • Organic gummy bears $11.55

I am truly concerned about those struggling with their food budgets. I’ve heard so many times that vegetables are too expensive, but people are willing to purchase any kind of tasty processed food and pay inflated prices for fictitious benefits.

It makes no sense to believe that the use of the word “organic” on a label could have a significant effect on calories, especially when these are more a function of the fat and sugar than the main organic ingredients potatoes, grain, and milk. Organic sugar is still sugar, with all its health consequences.

Lacking an understanding of organic standards, or how to analyze labels and see through the deceit, the general public has nothing but this erroneous “halo” of organic goodness to operate on. They rely on advertisers to educate them rather than understanding what is behind catchy words about foods.