Do organic labels make us think food is healthy?

Behind the Headlines

Wednesday April 3 2013

Organic foods are grown without artificial fertilisers and pesticides

‘Putting an organic label on ordinary foods can trick shoppers into believing that they are healthier, taste better and have fewer calories’, says the Daily Mail.

This news was based on a small US study and provides the intriguing suggestion that an “organic” label can influence people’s perception of a food’s qualities – a phenomenon known as the “health halo” effect.

In the study, people at a shopping centre were asked to taste and evaluate pairs of cookies, crisps and yoghurt. Although all the food was organically produced, only one item from each pair was labelled ‘organic’, while the other was (falsely) labelled ‘regular’.

Researchers found that after tasting the foods, people perceived food with an organic label to be lower in calories, lower in fat, higher in fibre and worth paying more for, than the same food without the organic label. However, the taste perceptions provided unclear results.

People’s choice to eat organic food is likely to be influenced by factors such as production without using synthetic pesticides (which they may perceive to be harmful). However, there is currently little evidence to suggest that organic food is nutritionally different from non-organic food.

Consumers, food producers and advertising regulators alike are bound to want more research into this area of nutrition and health psychology.

 

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Cornell University, in the US. No information about external funding has been provided.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Food Quality and Preference.

Contrary to the Mail’s claim, people’s evaluation of how the food tasted did not seem to be influenced by the “organic” label, but it did influence what they thought of the nutritional content. The Daily Telegraph’s coverage does convey that only the organic crisps were deemed more ‘appetising’ and the organic yoghurt more ‘flavourful’. However, it failed to point out the conflicting result that the ‘regular’-labelled cookies were believed to be more ‘flavourful’ than the organic-labelled cookies.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was a small study of consumers recruited from a shopping centre who were asked to taste and evaluate three identical pairs of food products – cookies, crisps and yoghurt. One item from each pair was labelled organic while the other was labelled regular. In fact, all the foods in the study were organic and identical.

The researchers say previous research has suggested package labels can influence how consumers evaluate a food product. In particular, the “health halo effect” of the organic label may influence people’s purchasing decisions.

 

What did the research involve?

Researchers recruited 115 people from a local New York shopping centre over a two-day period. Of the participants, 50 were male, 60 female and five of unreported gender. The participants ranged in age from 16 to 76. In the centre’s food court, they were each randomly assigned to a tray with three paired food samples and were asked to taste and evaluate the food.

The food consisted of two cookies, two portions of crisps and two cups of yoghurt. All foods in each pair were identical and had been organically produced, but one item of each pair was labelled “organic” and one falsely labelled “regular”. The order of the six items and the way they were arranged on the tray varied for each participant.

After the tasting, participants answered a questionnaire asking them to rate the organic and non-organic items for taste, nutritional attributes, overall calories and what they would be willing to pay for each food. Specifically, on a scale ranging from one (strongly disagree) to nine (strongly agree), they were asked whether the food: 

  • was appetising, flavourful, tasted good, tasted artificial (taste related)
  • tasted high in fat, tasted high in calories, was nutritious, contained a lot of fibre (nutrition related)

They were also asked to estimate:

  • the number of calories a snack-sized portion of each item would contain 
  • the highest amount of money they would be willing to pay for a snack-sized portion

The participants were also asked to complete a questionnaire about their shopping habits, eating behaviour, and “pro-environmental activities”. Specifically, on a scale of one to nine, they were asked whether they:

  • usually read nutritional labels on foods 
  • usually bought organic
  • liked to recycle
  • recycled whenever they could
  • enjoyed nature hikes or leisurely walks
  • enjoyed spending time with nature

They were asked to complete a 10-item “restrained eating” scale to assess eating behaviour.
 
The researchers used a method called ‘within-participants analysis of variances’ to examine if the organic label influenced people’s evaluations of the food for taste and nutrition and for how much they would be willing to pay. They also examined possible interactions between how people evaluated the food, their shopping habits and their environmental activities.

 

What were the basic results?

Overall, participants estimated foods with organic labels to be lower in calories, lower in fat and higher in fibre than the ‘regular’ foods. They were also willing to pay more for foods with the organic label (22.8% more for organic yoghurt, 23.4% more for organic crisps and 16.1% more for organic cookies).

While these effects were seen for everyone, the effects of the organic label on people’s estimates of the amount of calories were less pronounced if they typically read nutritional labels, bought organic foods, or engaged in pro-environmental activities.

However, the taste-related evaluations were inconsistent, contrary to some of the media interpretation.

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

Organic labels on foods are intended to advocate the benefits of organic methods of production. However, the researchers in this study conclude that the organic label may give an “undue perception of increased healthfulness” of food items. More caution is needed in determining whether and how the organic label should be included on food products, they argue.

 

Conclusion

This was a small study involving consumers from one US shopping centre and its results may not be applicable to other populations. It focussed on only three food items, and as the researchers say, more reliable conclusions might be drawn had it included a wider range of foods (such as fresh produce rather than just processed food items).

It is also possible that participants were influenced by each others’ responses. Or they gave what they thought were the “correct” – rather than genuine – answers about organic food, for example, in terms of what they might pay for organic food.

That said, the study does seem to indicate that people have mistaken perceptions of food labelled as organic. There are other factors that influence people’s choice to eat organic (such as the restricted use of synthetic pesticides, fertilisers, additives, hormones and antibiotics), the label has become an attractive marketing tool. This study appears to suggest that more evidence-based information should be made available about organic foods.

 

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on twitter.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Organic food labels 'trick' us into thinking food is healthier and tastier. Daily Mail, 3 April 2013

Health 'halo effect' of organic food can trick shoppers. The Daily Telegraph, 3 April 2013

 

Links to the science

Wan-chen JL, Shimizu M, Kniffin KM and Wansink B. You taste what you see: Do organic labels bias taste perceptions? Food Quality and Preference. Published online 9 February 2013

Ratings

How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 0 ratings

All ratings

0  ratings
0  ratings
0  ratings
0  ratings
0  ratings

Add your rating