The study – published in Appetite – explores whether ethical food claims such as organic labelling schemes can in fact promote negative impressions, by investigating how various consumer groups, including those with strong pro- and anti-environment beliefs, perceive organic food products in a variety of situations and contexts.
Led by Dr Jonathon Schuldt from the University of Michigan, USA, the research group found that while personal values had a large role to play in the initial judgement on organic products, certain contexts – such as a need for a functional health benefit – can lead even the most avid supporter to have negative connotations towards products labelled ‘organic’.
They said that when ‘additives’ are seen as a virtue, environmentalists judge ‘organic’ food more negatively.
“We found that—in the context of a food product designed to alleviate starvation in a famine-stricken developing nation—highly pro-environmental consumers judged the product more negatively (i.e., as less effective) when it was organic,” explained the researchers.
The team also said those consumers who have less focus on the environment consistently rated organics as less tasty than conventional foods.
Schuldt and his colleagues added that the research carries important practical implications for food manufacturers: “In an age when greenwashing has become ubiquitous as companies attempt to appeal to consumers with growing concerns about the ethical and environmental implications of their food choices, our data suggests that careful attention should be paid to the likely personal values of target consumers to avoid unintentionally discouraging purchases.”
The US-based researchers conducted two small scale studies to evaluate consumer attitudes and circumstances that may invoke negative connotations for the label claim.
In the first study 215 participants judged organic foods relative to conventional foods on healthfulness and expected taste quality, with Schuldt and his team finding that while organics were perceived as more healthy than conventional foods, they were also perceived as less tasty, especially among consumers with a low concern for the environment.
In the second study 156 consumers were asked to judge the effectiveness of a functional formula drink that was intended to help alleviate malnourishment. In this test, the same drink was either labelled ‘organic’ or was not.
Analysis showed that consumers of high environmental concern – who typically evaluate organic products positively – judged the drink negatively and thus as less effective when it was described as ‘organic’, said Schuldt.
“Results from the present study suggest that under certain circumstances, even consumers who are predisposed to favour a specific ethical claim may evaluate products that bear that claim more negatively,” said the authors.
“This work raises a number of questions for future research, the most fundamental of which regard the underlying mechanisms for these effects,” they commented.
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2012.11.004
“When good deeds leave a bad taste: Negative inferences from ethical food claims”
Authors: Jonathon P. Schuldt, Mary Hannahan