The Appealing Allure of an Organic Label

organic-food-usda-9451I recently wrote about the impact of a health halo — including “low-fat” labels that end up enticing you to eat even more.

Now there’s similar evidence that “organic” labels can lead you to overeat.  The labels tend to make people think their organic snack has a lot fewer calories than it really does.

These findings were presented at this week’s Experimental Biology conference in Anaheim, Calif.

Cornell researchers found that  people who ate organic cookies labeled as “organic” believed their snack contained 40% fewer calories than the same cookies that had no label, according to Jenny Wan-Chen Lee, a graduate student at Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab.

“An organic label gives a food a “health halo,” said coauthor Brian Wansink, Cornell professor and author of the books Marketing Nutrition and Mindless Eating.

It’s the same basic reason people tend to overeat any snack food that’s labeled as healthy or low fat. They underestimate the calories and over-reward themselves by eating more.”

The study even identified two personality types most likely to make these low estimates – people who claim to “usually buy organic foods,” and those who typically read labels for nutrition information.

What if you don’t want to overeat an organic food?

“Take your best guess at its calorie count. Then double it. You’ll end up being more accurate, and you’ll probably eat a lot less,” explained Wansink.

So true.  Don’t be blinded by the bright lights of a health halo.  Always turn the product around and check the nutrition facts panel to see exactly how many calories you’re eating.  Never assume that “organic” is necessarily healthier or lower in calories than a product without an organic label.  And remember, an organic cookie is still a cookie.

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  • I have to keep my mouth shut when my future mother-in-law starts showering praises on the organic Newman-Os she discovered at the local co-op as a “healthy” alternative to regular Oreos. They make her feel better, she says–they’re less heavy, less sugary. I don’t see how that’s possible, considering that two Newman-O’s have the calories and grams of saturated fat comparable to three Oreos, and the same amount of sugar per cookie. I think the halo extends to even the taste buds!

  • So interesting. I think parents also overestimate the healthfulness of organic foods for their kids. I think this ends up removing some of the parental responsibility that snacks are still snacks, cookies are cookies etc. So sad that subconsciously so many of us are trying to skirt common sense. After all, enough organic foods and we’ll all be wearing a “health halo” around our middle.

  • It is very revealing how consumers pay attention to marketing rather than actual information about a product. And on top of that, they probably don’t have a context – a food plan – in which to place these kinds of products. Food marketers probably don’t want to explain how their food should fit in!

  • Thanks for your comment Janet. I learn a lot from your blog, and this post was great!

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  • Jay

    Somehow I feel that this research is subjective. That’s just my opinion.

  • cyrell

    And again the problem with people believing in advertising instead of collecting information about nutrition.

    I like a brand of organic rice better than the commercial one because it tastes better. It does not cost more then one of better commercial brands but the organic rice has such a nice nutty taste and i have yet not been dissapointed with stale odour or taste which i cam across some cheap brands of rice but also some more expensive ones from a normally good brand-.

    But i also tried a bag of organic chips and it was..too salty and sharp in taste and also oily, an other brand was really good…but that does not mean that i think that organic chips are less in calories or anything.

    The organic pasta i buy is 77 cent instead of 35 of a no name non organic brand..also it seems to taste better.
    The cooked noodles may taste the same(with the cheap brand also sometimes tasting stale as if stored under to humid conditions) but they have a faint smell that reminds me of flowers and in the whole wheat ones it is even stronger..and the whole wheat ones are also only 77 cent.

    So sometimes organic is not more expensive then commercial produced stuff, sometimes it also tastes better and i also help the small farmers to stay in business..and also the environment.

    The lesser impact on the environment is something which should not be underestimated.

    But with organic food my palate has been less dissapointed then with the so ‘enchanted’ foods with less fat, less sugar, more vegetables or without flavour enhancer which are advertised as healthy food choices.

    Don´t blame the label or the food, teach the people…the labels could be full of information but that is useless when 90% of people only take one look at the label if the food looks good and then buy it or not.

    The packaging with the big fat writing and colours is the main choice for people to buy something.

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