Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in surgical gear from a scene in the movie Sleeper

Question the Health Benefits of Organic Brands

This post was originally written during my 2 1/2 year tenure as a blogger for Health Goes Strong. The site was deactivated on July 1, 2013, but you can read the post here.


Remember that funny scene in Woody Allen’s 1973 futuristic movie Sleeper when they dispute the health benefits of organic food? Well it looks like the future is here because the danger of eating organic brands has now been proven, that is if all you rely on is the label.

The twist has to do with what we perceive to be true about a food based on how it’s labeled. The effect has been dubbed a “health halo” and it happens when terms such as organic, natural and free-range are found on food. Some of us are more susceptible to it than others.

According to a new study, if you’re under the spell of a health halo, you’re more likely to think a food labeled as organic tastes better, has fewer calories and is better for you than its identical counterpart without an organic label. The study even found you’re willing to pay more for the food if smitten by the benefits of an organic label.

This is the point where I’d like to insert the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Power of Labels

Researchers from the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab recruited 115 people from a shopping mall in Ithaca, NY for their study. Each of the participants was given 2 identical samples of 3 different foods – 2 yogurts, 2 cookies and 2 portions of potato chips. One item in each pair was labeled “organic” and the other was labeled “regular,” even though both items in each pair were exactly the same.

The participants were asked to rate the taste and caloric content of each item and tell the researchers how much they’d be willing to pay for each. They then completed a questionnaire asking about their shopping habits and environmental practices.

As you might have guessed by now, the organic label influenced the opinion the participants had for those products.

Benefits of Organic

The researchers found the health halo effect of the organic label did not have a strong an influence over people who regularly buy organic foods, read nutrition labels and practice pro-environment behaviors. But for the people who didn’t match that description, they were susceptible to biases when they rated the foods. They said:

Organic cookies and Organic yogurt

  • contained fewer calories than regular
  • tasted like they had less fat than regular
  • were worth paying 23.4% more for than regular

Organic cookies and Organic potato chips

  • were more nutritious than regular

Organic yogurt and Organic potato chips

  • were more appetizing than regular
  • were more flavorful than regular

Regular cookies

  • tasted better than organic

While this study does not support Woody Allen’s premonition that hot fudge will someday be a health food, it does serve as a reminder that we should look beyond the label on the organic brands we buy. After all, organic hot fudge is still hot fudge.

Find out more on food labels here:

  • Nutrition Facts on Foods & Product Label Claims
  • Imagine Shopping Without Nutrition Facts on Food Labels
  • New Coke Ad Goes beyond the Nutrition Facts Label
Posted in Diet and Disease, Food Selection, Food Shopping, Food Trends, HEALTH GOES STRONG, Healthy Lifestyle, Ingredients and tagged , , , , , , .

Leave a Reply