PROBLEM: The rapid growth of the organic food industry is a good thing if it means that more people are supporting sustainable practices and avoiding unesecessary pesticides, but any $30 billion-a-year industry should be approached with caution. The wholesome-sounding "organic" label remains squarely on the fence between health and marketing.

METHODOLOGY: In the middle of a shopping mall food court, Cornell researchers recruited 115 passersby to participate in a taste test. The participants sampled what were labeled as the organic and non-organic versions of cookies, potato chips, and yogurt. In reality, the two types of each food were identical (and, incidentally, organic). They then rated the foods on taste (Was it appetizing? Flavorful? Did it taste artificial?) and perceived nutritional content, were asked to estimate how many calories each contained, and indicated how much they'd be willing to pay for snack-sized portions of each.

RESULTS: The participants guessed that the "organic" cookies, chips, and yogurt were 20 to 24 percent lower in calories than "regular" versions. They thought the organic foods "tasted lower in fat and calories" and higher in fiber as well, and perceived the cookies and chips, though not the yogurt, as tasting more nutritious. They were willing to pay up around 16 to 23 percent more for all three.

When it came to actually liking the food, instead of perceived health benefits, the organic label gave more ambiguous results. The organic chips were apparently a little more appetizing, and the organic yogurt was more flavorful, but the participants preferred the regular cookies. 

Certain factors seemed to make participants less susceptible to being fooled. For example, the organic labels had less of an effect on those who reported reading nutrition labels frequently and those who often bought organic, and were therefore more familiar with the foods and their marketing tactics. People who actively cared about the environment (as in, they regularly recycled and went on nature hikes) were marginally less confused by the labels.

IMPLICATIONS: While calling them organic didn't make foods more appealing across-the-board, the taste tests clearly demonstrated what the researchers call a "health halo" around the term. This explains some of the less straightforward results: The authors think that because yogurt is already thought to be healthy, the effect was diminished for the organic version; similarly, participants may have thought the organic cookies were less tasty precisely because they also thought they were healthier.

And what does it mean for something to taste low-fat, anyway? Not much more, probably, than whatever it means for food to taste organic. The word, it would appear from this admittedly small study, has become decontextualized.


"You taste what you see: Do organic labels bias taste perceptions?" is published in Food Quality and Preference.