Organic Chips? How Health Food Labeling Fools You

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Microwavable diet dinners and granola bars routinely top lists of foods you thought were healthy, but actually aren’t — like this one from Cooking Light or Dr. Oz’s slideshow on the topic. But there are other foods and products that escape these countdowns, ones which have achieved a “health halo.”

Foods that have been bestowed said “halo” are rewarded with an aura that makes them impervious to criticism — even when science is stacked against them. As a result, people choose this option because they believe it will benefit their health. In 2011, a study conducted by Cornell found that when participants were asked to judge two products, one labeled “organic” and the other lacking that moniker, people consistently rated the organic option has being lower in calories. A 2011 PhD dissertation from the University of Michigan details another aspect; not only are fewer calories estimated to be in the cookie when it has a label like “organic” people become inclined to eat them more often.

The organic influence

The dissertation undertook several studies of its own, including looking at how people viewed conventional Oreos versus Oreos they were told had been “made with organic flour and sugar.” The results reinforce the message from the Cornell study, and adds yet another layer to the perception deception. “When judging the calorie content of Oreo cookies relative to other brands, participants evaluating Oreo cookies ‘made with organic flour and sugar’ provided lower calorie judgments than did participants evaluating conventional Oreos,” the study found. “This effect was observed even though participants’ attention had just been drawn to the Nutrition Facts label that accurately conveyed that one serving of their randomly assigned cookie (organic or conventional) contained 160 calories.”

It isn’t only names that are fooling us, but colors too. Another study by Cornell, this one in 2013, discovered that people were more likely to judge a packaged food item that had a green label as healthy — even when it was a candy bar. “Specifically, a candy bar was perceived as healthier when it bore a green front-of-package calorie label than when it bore a red calorie label, despite the labels displaying the same calorie information (260 calories),” the authors stated.