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
All chocolate does not have the same health benefits

Is Chocolate Really a Health Food?

The health benefits of chocolate depend on more than just its color.

With Halloween sneaking up on us, it seems a good time to say a few words about the health benefits of chocolate. First a disclaimer: I love dark chocolate and eat it regularly. But I am not going to defend my habit by making up facts. The science stands on its own: Chocolate has many health benefits!

But like any other plant food rich in nutrients, the health benefits are only there if the food is grown and prepared properly. And that’s what’s missing from all the stories about the health benefits of chocolate. How is the chocolate made?

Here’s a little primer.

Chocolate comes from seeds found within the fruit of the cacao tree. Once the seeds, or cocoa beans, are harvested from the pod, they are fermented, dried, and roasted. Next the shells are removed and the beans are cracked into pieces called chocolate nibs. Some nibs are sold for cooking and baking, but most are ground into a paste known as chocolate liquor.

Chocolate liquor is processed to separate the cocoa solids from the cocoa butter. The cocoa solids are more commonly known as cocoa powder, a bitter tasting, low fat baking ingredient. Cocoa butter is a pale-yellow, solid vegetable fat with a mild flavor. It is used to make toiletries, such as body lotion, and pharmaceuticals in addition to chocolate candy we know and love.

To make dark chocolate, the cocoa powder and butter are recombined in various ratios along with sugar, the emulsifier lecithin and sometimes vanilla. Milk solids are added to make milk chocolate. That mixture is then conched, or mechanically mixed, at various temperatures for up to 78 hours to develop the taste, texture and creamy consistency. A final melting and cooling process called tempering insures the melt-in-your-mouth quality of the chocolate.

At this point, those nutrient rich cacao beans – assuming they were grown under ideal conditions and harvested at their peak of ripeness – have been fermented, dried, roasted, shelled, cracked, mashed, liquefied, separated, recombined with other ingredients, refined, conched and tempered.

Do you get my point?

Cocoa beans are rich source of cocoa flavanols, naturally occurring compounds that have been shown to improve circulation, heart function and cognition among other things. But when used to make chocolate, those cocoa beans are put through a lot.

At present there is no way to know the flavanol content of the chocolate you buy, no matter what percent cocoa it contains. Consequently it is not possible to make any recommendations about how much chocolate you should eat to get certain health benefits. And it is unlikely chocolate will ever be “prescribed” in that way. percent cocoa

So my advice is this: Whenever you eat chocolate, be sure you pick the one that tastes best to you!



Super foods are not enough for a healthy diet

Are Super Foods the Key to a Healthy Diet?

Quality and variety are essential for good nutrition

The battle of the super foods has always fascinated me. We live on a planet with more than 390,000 plant species, many of them edible but never sampled, yet there are some who think they have figured out what the Top 10 Super Foods are that we should eat for good nutrition.

I don’t buy it and never did. Any time you limit your diet to a top 10 food list, no matter how virtuous, you are losing the value of variety.

Eating a wide variety of foods is one of the basic tenets for a healthy diet. This means you should spread out your choices over all food groups and within each one, while also switching it up with the seasons. For example, if you like apples, it’s a good idea to buy some from New York State as well as Washington and swop out a Cortland for a Crispin or a Cameo occasionally, too.

That said, eating an apple a day is not the goal. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that we eat 3-4 servings of fruit every day. That’s 1 ½ – 2 cups of fruit 365 days of the year. Most Americans don’t even come close to meeting that goal.

A 2009 report from the Centers for Disease Control found that in no state were U.S. adults eating the recommended 3-4 servings of fruit a day and only 32.5% were consuming fruit two or more times a day. Debating whether blueberries or pomegranates should hold first place on this year’s super food list is a distraction from the more important issue that most Americans simply need to eat more fruit!

Eating fruit in any form can help close the gap. Fresh fruit is fine when available and affordable, while frozen fruit offers year round value. Canned fruit in unsweetened juice provides convenience and cost savings every day of the week, and dried fruit offers economy of space as well. And what could be easier than drinking a cup of 100% fruit juice once a day?

My strategy has been to always include a serving of fruit as part my breakfast and lunch, then have another as an afternoon snack. Even if I’m traveling, I can always get a glass of juice on a plane or in a bar and buy some trail mix with dried fruit in any convenience store. When the fruit bowl is empty at home, I always have berries in the freezer for my yogurt, mandarin orange segments in the pantry to toss into a salad and sundried tomatoes to snack on.

Something as basic as eating more fruit can result in dramatic changes in the quality of your diet. You’ll benefit not only from all of the vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients you’ll be consuming, but also because of all the other stuff you won’t be.

Why not keep a list of the different types of fruit you eat over one year to see if you can come up with 100? That’s a as a super food list I’d really like to see!