Organic Snack Study

May 10, 2010

The illusion of “healthy” drives consumers to eat more, buy more and therefore spend more.

The illusion of “healthy” drives consumers to eat more, buy more and therefore spend more. A recent study by the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab set out to understand and test consumers' taste perception of organic snack foods. With marketers anxiously pursuing the movement towards ‘healthy’ and organic foods, a better understanding of the influence of health claims is necessary. The Cornell University researchers set out to understand how organic labels on less healthy snacks may influence perceptions and habits.
Fifty four college students were randomly assigned to try cookies that were labeled ‘organic’ or cookies that had no label. Both groups of cookies were in fact Organic Oreos, made with organic sugar and flour. Participants rated the nutritional, value, and sensory attributes of the cookies, and were also asked about their personal environmental awareness and behavior- e.g., whether they recycled, liked being outdoors as well as their shopping habits and nutrition consciousness.
Those who consumed ‘organic’ labeled cookies believed they had approximately 40 percent fewer calories, more fiber and were overall more appetizing in appearance, than those who consumed and rated the non-labeled cookies. Surprisingly, the participants who claimed to typically buy organic foods and regularly use nutrition facts labels were those who believed the ‘organic’ labeled cookies were better overall. Participants who claimed to enjoy nature as well as those who enjoy hiking and walking were also influenced by the labe l- but these groups tended to believe that the ‘organic’ cookies tasted less natural. 
Brian Wansink the director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab and co-author on the study says, “an organic label gives a food a 'health halo,' It's the same basic reason people tend to overeat any snack food that's labeled as healthy or low fat. They underestimate the calories and over-reward themselves by eating more."
Clearly, health labels stimulate purchase and consumption - but this study suggests that this seems to depend on many factors including one’s own personality. The findings also reinforce the misperception that organic foods are in fact “healthier” alternatives, highlighting the fact that food and nutrition education is still lacking – even with college students.