Labeling a food as “organic” entails a claim about its production but is silent on its calorie content. Nevertheless, people infer that organic cookies are lower in calories and can be eaten more often than conventional cookies (Study 1). These inferences are observed even when the nutrition label conveys identical calorie content and are more pronounced among perceivers high on pro-environmentalism. Moreover, when evaluating a person with a weight-loss goal, forgoing exercise is deemed more acceptable when the person has just chosen organic rather than conventional dessert (Study 2). These results reflect an “organic/natural”-“healthy” association that is capable of biasing everyday judgments about diet and exercise.
The reported findings extend the literature on unwarranted inferences from food claims. Building on earlier work that documented profound overgeneralization from nutrient-based claims, we tested whether a production-based claim — namely, that a food is “organic” — can similarly bias consumers’ perceptions of attributes that are only associatively related. Our findings show that this is the case. When a food is described as organic, perceivers erroneously infer that it is lower-calorie and that it can be eaten more frequently (Study 1). These benevolent impressions of organic foods are likely to influence consumption decisions and to have downstream implications for other health-related choices. We observed these implications when participants read about a person with a weight-loss goal who was considering skipping her planned physical exercise: participants considered forgoing exercise to be more acceptable when the person had just chosen an organic rather than a conventional dessert (Study 2). In combination, these findings suggest that “organic” claims not only foster lower calorie estimates and higher consumption intentions, but that they might also convey that one has already made progress toward one’s weight-loss goal, thus undermining subsequent goal-consistent action (Fishbach & Dhar, 2005).
The “organic” path to obesity? Organic claims influence calorie judgments and exercise recommendations
Schuldt, J., & Schwarz, N
As part of an approximately 30-minute session on “thinking about food”, participants first completed a questionnaire soliciting personal background information (e.g., age, sex) including variables plausibly related to the hypothesized effects (e.g., political ideology, importance of eating healthfully). Participants also reported their height and weight, which we used to calculate body mass index (BMI), found to moderate calorie judgments in previous research (e.g., Wansink & Chandon, Reference Wansink and Chandon2006a).
Participants were then randomly assigned by computer algorithm to a web page displaying the actual Nutrition Facts label for either conventional Oreos (N = 42) or for Oreos “made with organic flour and sugar” (N = 72). These Nutrition Facts indicate the same number of calories (i.e., 160 per 34g serving), and we drew participants’ attention to this information using the following instructions (underlines original):
114 (80 females, 34 males) from the University of Michigan Introductory Psychology subject pool completed this laboratory experiment in exchange for partial course credit.
As predicted, participants’ judgments of calorie content relative to other brands were influenced by the organic claim: even though all participants had just read that one serving of the product contained 160 calories, the organic cookies received lower calorie judgments (M = 3.94) than did the conventional ones (M = 5.17); F (1, 112) = 26.17, p < .001, d = .97, for the main effect. In addition, the organic claim influenced participants’ consumption recommendations: the organic cookies were deemed more appropriate to eat more often (M = 3.68) than were the conventional ones (M = 2.76); F (1, 112) = 22.39, p < .01, d = .89, for the main effect.
Because attributes besides calories might account for the effect of organic claim on consumption recommendations (e.g., the moral licensing effect of green consumption; Mazar & Zhong, Reference Mazar and Zhong2010), we examined whether calorie judgments mediated this effect by testing the significance of pathway coefficients in our hypothesized mediation model (MacKinnon et al., Reference MacKinnon, Lockwood, Hoffman, West and Sheets2002) (Figure 1). After confirming that both consumption recommendations and calorie judgments were significantly associated with our manipulation (see above), we regressed consumption recommendations onto condition (organic vs. conventional) and calorie judgments. Results revealed that calorie judgments significantly predicted consumption recommendations (b = –.54, | t | (111) = 5.35, p < .001) whereas condition no longer did so (b = –.26, | t | (111) = .91, p = .36); thus, calorie judgments fully mediated the effect of condition on consumption recommendations. We interpret these mediation results with some caution, however, given that both calorie judgments and consumption recommendations might merely reflect the same underlying variable (e.g., the healthiness associated with organics).
organic, food labeling, health claims, halo effects, calorie estimation, obesity
Schuldt, J., & Schwarz, N. (2010). The “organic” path to obesity? Organic claims influence calorie judgments and exercise recommendations. Judgment and Decision Making, 5(3), 144-150. doi:10.1017/S1930297500001017