The word “organic” on a food label leads shoppers to assume that the food is healthy and low-calorie, says a new study by graduate students at Cornell University. But that assumption can be false.
While organic food may be free of pesticides, fertilizers, or hormones, it can still be loaded with sugar, fat, and empty calories.
In the study, researchers asked 144 people at a shopping mall to compare what they thought were regular and organic versions of chocolate cookies, plain yogurt, and potato chips. In actuality, all of the food sampled was organic. Subjects said that they preferred the taste of the organically labeled foods, even though they were identical to their conventionally labeled counterparts. Foods labeled “organic” were also perceived to be significantly lower in calories.
In addition, foods labeled “organic” were perceived to be lower in fat and higher in fiber. Overall, organically labeled chips and cookies were erroneously considered to be more nutritious than their “non-organic” counterparts.
These results suggest that the subjects fell prey to what is known as the “halo effect.” This happens when one positive attribute of a person leads us to believe the person has other positive attributes. For example, people may assume that an attractive person is also intelligent. This effect also apparently applies to food. When people believe the food they are eating is organic, they presume it is also tastier and lower in calories.
Related research has found that people tend to consume more calories at fast-food restaurants that claim to serve healthy fare than at typical fast-food burger joints.
See also: 13 Foods You Should Always Buy Organic