The Organic Health Halo: It's Real, People

My Generation

Cornell researchers find that consumers believe organic food has fewer calories and are willing to pay nearly 25% more for it. Lesson: read the label.

Published on: April 2, 2013

A new study from Cornell University floated through my social media field yesterday.

Basically, a group of researchers from Cornell's Food and Brand Lab wanted to know if the "health halo" effect of organic food could lead to real bias. Previous studies have shown that the organic label can lead consumers to think a product is healthier, but this group wanted to know if it went further than that.

Turns out, it does.

In short, they offered up a pair of cookies, yogurt and potato chips to shoppers. All of the product pairs were produced organically, but they labeled one of each as "organic" and "regular." Then they offered them up to consumers to taste and rate.

"Even though these foods were all the same, the “organic” label greatly influenced people’s perceptions," they reported. In fact, consumers estimated the organic cookies and yogurt to have significantly fewer calories. And - AND - they were will to pay up to 23.4% more for them.

People also believed the "organic" cookies and yogurt tasted lower in fat than the "regular" variety. Even "organic" chips and yogurt were deemed to be more appetizing and flavorful.

A very large part of me wants to say, really? Really, people? And yet, I know we can convince ourselves of all sorts of nutritional shenanigans. Remember the Snackwells cookies of the mid-'90s? My fellow college freshmen and I were pretty sure those were our diet silver bullet, mostly because they said "fat-free" on the label. Never mind that they had enough sugar to choke a horse. They were fat free! And that was my first lesson in reading labels. Because, shocker, I didn't lose weight by eating Snackwell cookies. I just ate a lot of bad cookies.

But if you read a label - and know what organic means - then you have a much better chance of avoiding the health halo. You can be an informed consumer. You can know that organic doesn't really mean more nutritious; you can make the decision to either buy organic or conventional food because you know the organic label is simply a description of how the food was raised, not the nutritional content. You can make decisions based on scientific analysis (and nutritional labels) as opposed to marketing labels like, "healthy", "nutritious" and my all-time favorite, "natural."

This, of course, transfers the responsibility to the individual. That's not always welcome in our society. But there's a lot of power in that responsibility. And that includes being able to make a conscious decision about nutritional value. And health.

In the end, it's up to us to read labels, pay attention and understand what terms like organic really mean (and don't mean).