Consumers associate food labeled organic as being healthier

Consumer panelists perceived snack foods labeled organic to be lower in calories, and were willing to pay more for them.

Consumer panelists, 144 selected at a shopping mall near Cornell University, were given the opportunity to taste and subsequently evaluate chocolate sandwich cookies, potato chips and plain yogurt labeled organic or not labeled organic. Ratings for overall taste and perception of fat, fiber and caloric content were assigned by panelists. Additionally, panelists were asked to assign a value of what they were willing to pay for each set of samples.

Overwhelmingly for all three types of foods, consumer participants indicated that foods labeled organic were lower in calories and that they were willing to pay more for foods labeled organic. Panelists also indicated that the organic labeled food tasted lower in fat and contained more fiber. Overall, consumers perceived the organic foods to be more nutritious than the traditional comparison. The samples were actually all identical and of organic standards.

The researchers believe the results of this study are a result of the “halo effect.” The “halo effect” has been accepted by psychologists that one trait of an individual can influence the perception of another trait by how the first trait is perceived, even though the two traits may not be accurately linked together. The researchers for the organic and non-organic food panel found this theory carries over into perceptions of food and is applicable for more than just characteristics of people.

These researches warn that if consumers associate certain foods as being healthier that overeating may result because these food do not always actually have increased nutrition. Organically labeled snacks often have similar calorie and fat contents to non-organic foods. This could pose a health risk for some consumers who do not keep track of calories or other factors when eating organically labeled foods.

This research was presented at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology conference in April 2011.