Are organic foods healthier or is it just the ‘halo effect’?

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BETHESDA, Md. — If cookies are “organic,” they should be better for you, right? And worth more money, right?

Jenny Wan-chen Lee, a graduate student at Cornell University, has been fascinated with a phenomenon known as “the halo effect” for some time.

Halo effect

Psychologists have long recognized that how we perceive a particular trait of a person can be influenced by how we perceive other traits of the same individual.

In other words, the fact that a person has a positive attribute can radiate a “halo”, resulting in the perception that other characteristics associated with that person are also positive. An example of this would be judging an attractive person as intelligent, just because he or she is good-looking.

Food ‘halo’

A growing literature suggests that the halo effect may also 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 “healthier” foods, compared to the amount they eat at a typical burger-and-fry joint.

The reasoning is that when people perceive a food to be more nutritious, they 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.

Organic label

This health halo effect also seems to apply to certain foods considered by many to be especially healthy, such as organic products.

Specifically, some people mistakenly assume that these foods are more nutritious just because they carry an “organic” label — an area of long-standing active debate among food and nutrition scientists.

Research

As part of her master’s research, Lee asked whether the “health halo” surrounding organic foods would lead people to automatically perceive them as tastier or lower in calories.

She tested this question by conducting a double-blind, controlled trial in which she asked 144 subjects at the local mall to compare what they thought were conventionally and organically produced chocolate sandwich cookies, plain yogurt, and potato chips.

All of the products, however, were actually of the organic variety — they were just labeled as being “regular” or “organic.”

Participants were then asked to rate each food for 10 different attributes (e.g., overall taste, perception of fat content) using a scale from 1 to 9.

She also asked them to estimate the number of calories in each food item and how much they would be willing to pay.

All in the label

Confirming Lee’s health halo hypothesis, the subjects reported preferring almost all of the taste characteristics of the organically labeled foods, even though they were actually identical to their conventionally labeled counterparts.

The foods labeled “organic” were also perceived to be significantly lower in calories and evoked a higher price tag. In addition, foods with the “organic” label were perceived as being lower in fat and higher in fiber.

Overall, organically labeled chips and cookies were considered to be more nutritious than their “non-organic” counterparts. So, not only is there a health halo emanating from organic foods, but it’s strong and consistent — at least for cookies, chips, and yogurt.

Real effect

Although Lee is the first to acknowledge that her study was limited in the variety of foods tested, she is confident that this effect is real and has important implications as to what, and how much, people eat, especially those who preferentially seek out foods carrying an “organic” seal.

Additional studies will be needed before we know whether these perceived taste and nutrition attributes result in greater consumption of organic versus conventional foods.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t see anything mentioned about the fact organic foods do not contain have any pesticides, herbicides, artificial coloring, bleaching chemicals, GMO grains, antibiotics or any of the other poisons that make them a healthier choice than non organic.

  2. There are definite factors that have been linked to obesity, including a sedentary lifestyle, overconsumption of calories, and economic-driven factors. But, there is no proven correlation between the growth of Americans’ waistlines and the growth in U.S. organic sales.

    It is important to recognize that there are real differences between organic foods and their non-organic counterparts. By law, organic foods must be made without the use of artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. This is particularly important given recent research illustrating the link between exposure synthetic food dyes and increased incidents of health problems, including ADHD (http://www.organicitsworthit.org/quick/chemical-additives).

    Organic foods also reflect the true cost of the food production. By contrast, there are hidden costs generated through the production of non-organic products for which everyone pays indirectly. As Dr. Sandra Steingraber has written (http://www.organicitsworthit.org/make/economic-sense-organic-food), “Among the costs not incorporated into the bar codes that beep their way through the check-out lane: fertilizer-contaminated groundwater, insecticide-contaminated fish, herbicide-contaminated rain, dead honeybees, poisoned wildlife, deformed frogs, eroded soil, toxic algal blooms, ozone depletion, and antibiotic resistance. These are what economists call “externalities”—the costs of an activity that are borne by others. The bad thing about externalities is that they lead to market outcomes that are costly to society even though privately profitable.”

    At the same time, organic products support a system of sustainable agricultural management that promotes soil health and fertility through the use of such methods as crop rotation and cover cropping, which nourish plants, foster species diversity, help combat climate change, prevent damage to valuable water resources, and protect farmers and farmers’ families from exposure to harmful chemicals.

    It is also worth noting that mounting evidence (http://www.organicitsworthit.org/organic-food-article/nutritional-considerations) indicates that organically grown fruits, vegetables and grains may offer more of some nutrients, including vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, than their counterparts grown using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

    Given these and the many other benefits organic products have to offer, it is clear that organic is worth it for our health as well as the health of our planet.

    • farmers “support a system of sustainable agricultural management that promotes soil health and fertility through the use of such methods as crop rotation and cover cropping, which nourish plants, foster species diversity, help combat climate change, prevent damage to valuable water resources, and protect farmers and farmers’ families from exposure to harmful chemicals.” Whether organic or non organic farmers routinely use crop rotation, label directions for their use of crop protection products, and work for a sustainable production. Organically raised items may reduce our sustainability because for some of them it requires more land to match the amount of production. Furthermore techniques used for organic production may also have their hazards such as using manures for fertilizer and the risk of spreading disease. I am not saying no one should eat organic foods, only that we need to be very careful about making assumptions which is the point of the research being reported.

      • Mary
        Just to be clear, Organic operations can NOT spread raw manure on fields. It all has to composted, and we also have to keep accurate records of that composting.

        Manure that is properly composted does not spread disease.

        As for rotations, I can show you hundreds of acres that are not properly rotated. corn/soybean rotation just doesn’t cut it, it needs to have hay rotated in also.
        I can throw a rock and hit a hay field that’s been there for at least 15 years.

        I think you need to check the definition of sustainable. It has nothing to do with production levels. If chemical based fertilizer went away tomorrow, my production wouldn’t be effected. Can you say that about a conventional farm?

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