We're fickle about what we eat. Whether our proscriptions are religious (no alcohol, no pork), dietary (no gluten, no dairy), ideological (no cages, no cruelty), environmental (no pesticides, no GMOs) or simply faddish (no carbs, no sugar), we know just what we want when we walk into Price Chopper. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean we know what we’re eating.
New researchfrom Cornell suggests that a “health halo” exists around organic products, including chips, cookies, and yogurt, which leads consumers to consistently underestimate their caloric content and overestimate nutritional value—even when the snacks don’t taste so great.
A team of food scientists, led by Wan-chen Jenny Lee, put 115 mall shoppers through a mock taste test of organic and conventional products. They were given “organic” and “non-organic” samples of cookies, chips, and other foods, but, unbeknownst to the shoppers, the two samples were actually identical and all organically produced. After trying samples of both labels, consumers were asked to estimate how many calories were in each, along with fat and fiber, and to state how much they’d be willing to pay for the snack.
That little label had a big impact on how the snacks were evaluated. Consumers estimated that the “organic” chips and cookies had 23 percent fewer calories than the “regular” ones; likewise, they rated the “organic” snacks as being lower in fat, more nutritious, and higher in fiber. And while the “regular” snacks got better marks across the board on taste and flavor, consumers nevertheless stated that they would pay 16 to 23 percent more for the “organic” products, which they thought tasted worse.
Given junk-food makers’ ongoing war for American stomach-share—and the nasty press they’ve been receiving in the wake of Michael Moss’ recent New York Times Magazine expose—news of such a halo couldn’t come at a more inconvenient time. Unless, of course, Doritos has a new sprouted-quinoa, GMO-free flavor in the works—in which case,well, we tried to warn you.