The organic halo alters food and exercise choices

Nutrient-based claims on food labels are shown in some research to promote calorie underestimation.  This is often called the health halo effect; certain buzz words associated with what people consider healthy cause them to overgeneralize other attributes of a food, downplay the number of calories, and not pay as much attention to the nutrition facts panel.

A couple recent studies by Schuldt and Schwarz (1) show this happens with the word “organic” on the label as well, with food and exercise.  Indirect evidence has suggested this for awhile (associations of “organic” with”healthy” among many other inferences).

In the first study, they showed 114 college students, split into 2 groups a Nutrition Facts panel for conventional Oreos or Oreos that were “made with organic flour and sugar” that had the same number of calories.  They were asked to rate on a scale if they thought the cookies they were shown had in comparison to other brands more or fewer calories and if they should be eaten more or less compared to other brands.  They also completed a New Ecological Paradigm scale which measured how pro-environmentalist they are.

On average the “organic oreos” were rated as having fewer calories compared to other brands, and were rated more appropriate to eat more often.  They also found that a higher level of pro-environmentalism more strongly biased the calorie content perceptions of the organically made oreos- they rated other brands higher on the calorie perceptions scale.

So having the word organic on the label made the product seem better compared to other brands of the same product, and more ok to consume, and this was influenced more by level of pro-environmentalism.

In the second study, they tested whether organic labeling can influence the perception of the need for exercise.  In this one, 214 students were split into 5 conditions, in which they were told a fictional person trying to lose weight who usually runs after dinner was considering skipping it for schoolwork.  Then they were given different meal choices, which included dessert variations of organic or conventional ice cream or cookies, or no dessert.  They rated on a scale if they thought it was ok if the fictional person to skip exercise.  They also again did the pro-environmentalism scale.

When the fictional person had an organic dessert, the raters were more lenient in suggesting that she should skip exercise (though not by much).  Interestingly the suggestion that she could skip exercise in the no-dessert situation was not as high as with the organic-dessert.  This time, pro-environmentalism did not influence results.

These findings were interesting but not as dramatic as the first experiment (still statistically significant but just at P=.05), and the expected association with pro-environmentalism was not there (though the authors provide evidence-based reasoning why this may be).  This could still mean a real effect or that larger subject numbers could produce differing results.

The “Sherlock Holmes of food” himself, Brian Wansink, and his group at Cornell similarly studied 54 college students with oreos- organic or non, also surveying for environmentalism and also behavior.  They apparently found organically labeled cookies were estimated with 40% fewer calories than unlabeled ones, and rated appearance and fiber content higher.  This one doesn’t appear to be published yet except for the details noted in various media reports (2).

Conclusions

Most people won’t consider the health halo effect when weighing in on a discussion of organic and conventional foods.  It would seem that most of the claims for organic foods, such as that they have more nutrients or are healthier or are universally better for the environment are not evidence-based, as i’ve explored a little previously.  But if labeling a processed food organic skews perceptions of calorie content or negatively influences activity level, it is troubling and further supports the banning of package labels.  Many people demand that they deserve to know if a food is organic or not, which raises an interesting ethical conundrum.  Assuming most organic consumers are choosing based on ideological not logical reasoning, do we allow them to fall prey to subconscious biases when science finds them?  All we can do for now is educate about them and hope this reduces the halo effect.

It should be important to note that these studies are obviously on a food product- it seems we should be less concerned about a health halo effect of organic food when people are purchasing real (unprocessed) foods- in fact it may even get them to eat more of these good foods.  That would be an interesting follow-up study for sure.

And what about the countless other words like “vegetarian,” “vegan,” and “gluten free” that appear on labels as well?

I would have to agree with the banning of front-of-package labeling.

References

1. Schuldt, Jonathon P., & Schwarz, Norbert (2010). The “organic” path to obesity? Organic claims influence calorie judgments and exercise recommendations Judgment and Decision Making, 5 (3), 144-150. journal.sjdm.org/10/10509/jdm10509.pdf

2. Stein, Jeannine.  Beware foods with ‘organic’ label — they may be higher in calories than you think. LATimes Booster Shots Column. Published April 30, 2010.  Accessed October 6, 2010.  latimesblogs.latimes.com/booster_shots/2010/04/organic-foods-calories.html