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03-04-2013 | Metabolism | Article

“Health halo” effect of organic food labeling may mislead consumers

Abstract

Free abstract

medwireNews: Many people consider food products to taste healthier and contain fewer calories if they are labeled as organic, suggest study findings.

The researchers, led by Mitsuru Shimizu (Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA), found that this "health halo" organic label-associated effect occurred despite comparison foods also being organic, and of identical origin and appearance to the foods labeled as organic.

The findings extended to price and the team found that participants were willing to pay almost a quarter more for food products labeled as being organic than for those not labeled as organic, regardless of taste and origin.

However, people who regularly read nutritional labels, often bought organic foods, and participated in pro-environmental activities were significantly less likely to assume that organic food contained less calories than people who did not.

As reported in Food Quality and Preference, Shimuzu and colleagues randomly recruited 115 people aged 16-76 years from a shopping mall in Ithaca over a 2-day period. The participants' body mass index ranged from 16.4 to 55.8 kg/m2.

Each participant was asked to taste and assess three paired food samples consisting of cookies, potato chips, and yoghurt. Although the two samples were identical and both sourced from an organic producer, only one sample in each pair was labeled as organic.

People rated the organically labeled samples as containing significantly fewer calories than the unlabeled samples. For example, they estimated that the organic cookies contained an average of 144.93 calories versus 191.07 for the unlabeled cookies.

The participants also rated the organically labeled products as tasting significantly more nutritious, lower in fat, lower in calories, and higher in fiber than the unlabeled samples.

Regarding price, participants said they would be willing to pay 22.8%, 23.4%, and 16.1% more for organic yoghurt, potato chips, and cookies than for non-organic products.

"The use of organic labels on processed food items may seem attractive to retailers and manufacturers in order to advocate the benefits of organic methods of production. However, this study demonstrates that these labels may instead impart an undue perception of increased healthfulness of a food item," write the authors.

"Given the disparity between the intended message and actual consumer perception, more caution should be taken in determining whether and how the organic label - as well as other health claims - should be included on a given food package."

medwireNews (www.medwirenews.com) is an independent clinical news service provided by Springer Healthcare Limited. © Springer Healthcare Ltd; 2013

By Helen Albert, Senior medwireNews Reporter

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