Organic claims on food packaging could lead consumers to overeat or even exercise less, according to a new study published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making.
The study’s authors, from the University of Michigan, hypothesized that a “tendency to over-generalize health claims” could lead consumers of organic foods to assume that an organic label implies a less calorific product – not just one that is produced without synthetic chemicals. Both the terms ‘organic’ and ‘low-calorie’ are strongly associated with the concept of ‘healthy’ in contemporary America, they wrote, suggesting that “these associations might lead consumers to assume that foods produced organically contain fewer calories than their conventional counterparts, despite the fact that the ‘organic’ designation entails no such claim.”
In addition, they found that the influence of the organic claim on calorie judgments was most pronounced among participants for whom organic production was a particularly valued attribute.
The researchers conducted two experiments to see whether consumers might equate organic with fewer calories.
In the first study, they asked 114 college students to read nutrition labels for cookies labeled either ‘Oreo cookies’ or ‘Oreo cookies made with organic flour and sugar’, both clearly marked as containing 160 calories. They were then asked to rate whether they thought the cookies contained fewer or more calories than other cookie brands and whether they should be eaten more or less often than other cookie brands.
As predicted, the cookies described as ‘organic’ were perceived to have fewer calories, and participants also said the organic cookies could be eaten more often than the non-organic ones.
In a separate study, 215 college students read about a character who wanted to lose weight, but also wanted to skip her after-dinner run. They were told that she had chosen either an organic or non-organic dessert, or no dessert at all.
The participants were more likely to be lenient about the character’s choice to forego exercise when if she had chosen an organic dessert – and were even more lenient if she had chosen an organic dessert than if she had chosen no dessert at all.
"These findings suggest that 'organic' claims may not only foster lower calorie estimates and higher consumption intentions, but they may also convey that one has already made progress toward one's weight loss goal, thus undermining subsequent
goal-consistent action," the researchers wrote.
The authors noted that their findings were in line with previous research that showed an association between certain label claims and unrelated characteristics; for example, understanding ‘low fat’ to mean that a product is low in calories, or ‘low cholesterol’ to mean that a product is low in fat.
Source: Judgment and Decision Making
Vol. 5, No. 3, June 2010
“The “organic” path to obesity? Organic claims influence calorie judgments and exercise recommendations”
Authors: Jonathon Schuldt and Norbert Schwarz