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You taste what you see: Do organic labels bias taste perceptions?

Wan-chen Jenny Lee, Mitsuru Shimizu, Kevin M. Kniffin, and Brian Wansink. (2013). You taste what you see: Do organic labels bias taste perceptions? Food Quality and Preference,  29(1), 33-39. doi: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2013.01.010

Organic foods have become increasingly available in the market. Research shows that consumer evaluations of foods are influenced by packaging labels and grocery shopping is a routine behavior that requires low levels of cognitive involvement. Therefore, we hypothesized that due to a “health halo” effect foods labeled organic would be estimated to have greater nutrient value, score higher on taste evaluations, and that individuals would report a higher willingness to pay for organic labeled items. We also hypothesized that certain behaviors would impact this “health halo” effect including whether or not individuals report engaging in environmentally friendly activities, frequency of reading nutrition labels, and frequency of buying organic foods.

 One hundred fifteen participants were recruited to taste and evaluate three foods over two days in a shopping mall in Ithaca, New York. This study used a within-subject design where each participant was provided three pairs of products: two samples of potato chips, two yogurt cups, and two cookies.   In each pair one food item was labeled “organic” and one “regular” although both items were in fact identical. After tasting each pair of items, participants completed a questionnaire. The questionnaire included measures of nutrition and taste, caloric estimation and willingness to pay. At the end of the tasting, participants answered questions about shopping behaviors, pro-environmental activities, restrained eating and demographics.

 All three foods labeled organic were estimated to be lower in calories, more nutritious, and elicited a higher willingness to pay, providing support for the idea of a “health halo” effect on organic labeled foods. However, taste evaluations were inconclusive possibly due to a perception that unhealthy foods are tasty. Certain shopping behaviors where found to diminish this “health halo” effect including, regularly reading nutrition labels, regularly buying organic foods, and exhibiting pro-environmental behaviors. The findings of this study show that many individuals attribute healthy qualities to organic foods despite their actual nutritional value and will pay more for them. Researchers urge shoppers to keep in mind that an organic cookie is, after all, still a cookie and to judge healthfulness based on nutrition information rather than the organic label!