Organic Food and the “Halo Effect”

April 13, 2011


“Its organic, so it must be good for you, right?”

This statement is a misconception that I and many other dietitians have observed since organic became a mainstream marketing technique, is now proven to have an impact on individual’s perception of a food.  The organic label has a “halo effect” where the food’s taste is considered to be improved and the perceived amount of calories are underestimated.

This research, conducted by Jenny Wan-chen Lee, a graduate student at Cornell University, took a closer look at the organic label and an individual’s perception of the food.  Lee asked participants in a double-blind study to rate two versions of the same product – one labeled organic and the other conventional.  Organic was preferred far more often than the conventional products in taste and was also estimated to be lower in calories and fat as well as higher in fiber.  Interestingly, the products studied (potato chips, cookies, and yogurt) are all categories of foods typically higher in calories and fat and lower in fiber, with the exception of yogurt in some cases.

This study brings to light a concept well known throughout the food industry – organic labels increase sales and have a strong, positive impact on  an individual’s perception of the food.  The numbers reflect this impact as well with organic food sales reaching $26.6 billion in 2009 (a growth of 5.1 percent), according to the Organic Trade Association.  Organic sells, but the importance of understanding the nutritional content of the food and reading labels on all products, including organic, must not be neglected!

Let’s take a look at a few organic and conventional products to compare the nutritional content.

Chocolate Chip Cookies:

Wild Harvest Organic Chocolate Chip Cookies (2 cookies or 30 grams): 150 calories, 7 grams fat, 1 gram fiber, 9 grams sugar

Chips Ahoy Chocolate Chip Cookies (32 gram serving size): 160 calories, 8 grams fat, 1 gram fiber, 10 grams sugar

Ice Cream:

Stonyfield Organic Vanilla Ice Cream (1/2 cup serving): 250 calories, 16 grams fat, 0 grams fiber, 20 grams sugar

Haagen Daz Vanilla Ice Cream (1/2 cup serving): 270 calories, 18 grams far, 0 grams fiber, 21 grams sugar

Whole Wheat Crackers:

Health Valley Organic Whole Wheat Crackers (4 crackers or 15 grams): 70 calories, 3 grams fat, 1 gram fiber, 1 gram sugar

Kashi Heart to Heart Whole Grain Crackers (7 crackers or 30 grams): 120 calories, 3.5 grams fat, 4 grams fiber, 0 grams sugar
(for an easy comparison to the organic cracker, the serving size halved is approximately 60 calories, 1.7 grams of fat, 2 grams fiber, 0 grams sugar)

My only point in writing out these examples is to show that the organic product does not usually differ much from the conventional or all natural product.  A cookie is still a cookie and ice cream is still ice cream despite its organic label.  An organic seal on a product does not mean it is nutritionally superior to the conventional counterpart.  Of course, there are multiple reasons to buy organic outside of the nutritional content, such as pesticide use, sustainability, location of production, etc, but keep in mind the importance of reading nutrition labels despite the organic seal.

If you would like more information on organic labeling laws, take a look at this quick fact sheet from the USDA.  Click Here

On a side note…Maggie and I really enjoyed the Boston spring weather this weekend!  

Eat Well.Feel Well,


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One Comment on “Organic Food and the “Halo Effect””

  1. Antonina Says:

    Useful information, I will be browsing back again often to discover posts.


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