Researchers from Cornell University asked 115 shoppers to evaluate three pairs of products – two yoghurts, two cookies and two portions of crisps. One of each was labelled ‘organic’ and the other was labelled ‘regular’, when in fact all the products were identical and organic.
They found that participants estimated the organic labelled cookies and yoghurt to have significantly fewer calories than the ‘regular’ versions and they were also perceived as tasting lower in fat. The ‘organic’ yoghurt and crisps were judged to taste better too, although the opposite was true for the cookies – an effect the researchers suggested may be because consumers often believe healthier foods to be less tasty.
On average, participants said they were willing to pay 23.4% more for the products that carried organic labels.
“The results indicated that the presence of an organic label can exert an influence on one’s caloric estimation, willingness to pay, and nutritional evaluations,” the researchers wrote.
“…If [organic] labels can influence how people judge a food product’s overall healthfulness, perhaps it is important to assess whether these labels are truly beneficial for helping consumers construct a healthier diet.”
Who is least influenced by labels?
The study’s authors did find that some participants were less susceptible to the labelling effect than others. Those least easily influenced to think that ‘organic’ labelled products were healthier included people who said they regularly read nutrition labels, as well as those who regularly purchased organic foods.
However, although these individuals were less likely to believe the ‘organic’ foods were healthier, they were still influenced in terms of willingness to pay, caloric ratings, and some nutrition-related evaluations.
“These results suggest that food companies have been able to benefit from its favourable perception by displaying the organic label prominently on their food products as a marketing tool,” the researchers wrote.
Study author Jenny Wan-chen Lee, a graduate student at Cornell University's Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, first presented the results of the study as part of the scientific program of the American Society for Nutrition annual meeting last year.
Lee told FoodNavigator at that time that she had long been interested in the possible ‘health halo’ effect of organic labels, whereby the positive associations of organic production could have a strong positive influence on consumer expectations of the other attributes of a product.
Source: Food Quality and Preference
“You taste what you see: Do organic labels bias taste perceptions?”
Wan-chen Jenny Lee, Mitsuru Shimizu, Kevin M. Kniffin, Brian Wansink