Stamping food products with an “organic” label may not always lead to a positive, healthful impression, according to a recent two-part Cornell University study, published online in the journal Appetite. In fact, certain conditions can produce a negative impression of organic labels among consumers, based upon consumers’ values.
During part one of the study, when asked whether they thought organic foods were healthier and tasted better than their conventional counterparts, most of the 215 students surveyed agreed that organics were in fact the healthier choice, although fewer expected organic foods to taste better by comparison. The latter finding was especially true for participants who maintained low concern for the environment.
“The personal values of the rater mattered,” said Jonathon Schuldt, assistant professor of communications, who conducted the survey. “Our data suggest when organic practices do not appeal to a consumer’s values, they expect organic food to taste worse.”
In part two of the study, the researchers explored whether there were contexts in which those who were pro-environment might have a negative impression of organic labels. Here, 156 participants read one of two versions of a fake news article that discussed the development of “a highly engineered drink product designed to relieve the symptoms of African children suffering from severe malnutrition,” according to the study.
To convey the artificial, engineered aspect of the beverage, the article described the drink – named “Relief drink 1.1” – as a “formula” that resulted from a collaboration between “scientists and the food industry.” In one version of the news article, the engineered drink was described as organic every time the drink was mentioned. The other version never mentioned the word organic. Participants were randomly assigned one version of the news story or the other.
The results showed that participants who were highly pro-environment judged the organic version of the drink to be less effective compared with the non-organic version.
The study’s findings undermine the notion of a “halo effect” for ethical food labels – implying that the “organic” label does not necessarily lead to a positive perception of the product. “It’s a reminder that the halo effect hinges on the values of the perceiver,” Schuldt said. “It’s not the case that you can label a food organic and expect that everyone will perceive it more positively. Under certain circumstances, ethical labels could have an unintended backfire effect.”