• A French study has investigated a concept called ‘the halo effect’ and its relationship to organic food. (Westend61/Getty Images)Source: Westend61/Getty Images
What's better for you: an organic or regular cookie? A new French study reminds us that there's probably no difference between the two (they're both calorific cookies!) and 'organic' doesn't necessarily mean 'nutritious'.
Yasmin Noone

9 Apr 2019 - 12:21 PM  UPDATED 9 Apr 2019 - 12:23 PM

Don’t dig too deep into your pocket to buy organic food if you’re doing it because you think it'll automatically be better for your waistline than non-organic produce.

According to the results of a new French study, it's likely that similar foods will contain similar nutritional content, regardless of whether it is an organic product or not. 

The research, led by University Paris Nanterre, investigated a concept called ‘the halo effect’ and its presence, hovering around organic food products in the health food aisle of your local supermarket.

The study says that people may be swayed into buying organic foods because of this halo effect: an inaccurate assumption that all organic foods will contain a lower amount of calories than regular, non-organic food, just because the packaging carries an ‘organic’ label.

“Organic cookies were considered as more suitable for regular consumption than conventional cookies.”

The paper, published in the journal Appetite, describes the outcome of two tests. The first saw 151 French psychology undergraduate students complete an online study rating the nutritional value of a regular cookie and a cookie made from organic flour and sugar. The majority of participants assumed the organic cookie had fewer calories even though the two products had the same amount of calories.

In the second study, 269 people from the French community completed an online study comparing the calorie content of organic and non-organic cookie brands, while indicating their willingness to pay for the organic product.

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“In this second study, we replicated the health halo effect based on the organic label, not only on the evaluation of the number of calories in cookies but also on the recommended consumption frequency,” the study reads.

“Organic cookies were considered as more suitable for regular consumption than conventional cookies.”

The second study also found that the more negative a person was towards organic products, the less willing they were to pay specifically for organic labelling.

“What we see is that people generally think that a food product has the term ‘organic’ on it, then it’s healthier.”

Nicole Dynan, a spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says the results of the French study are easily applicable to our local context. Similar organic food products, manufactured by international companies, are available all over the world.

“What we see is that people generally think that a food product has the term ‘organic’ on it, then it’s healthier,” says Dynan, an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

“This study showed a true health halo effect, as there was little nutritional difference between the two types of products.”

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To better understand the idea behind the halo effect on organic food, Dynan, recommends that Australians consider the food labels ‘sugar-free’, ‘gluten-free’, ‘natural’ and ‘made with natural fruit’. Once upon a time, she says, we thought these labels equated to health. Parents may have bought their children lollies because they were marketed as natural while people purchased gluten-free alternatives, not knowing they may have contained a lot of sugar.

Dynan believes that these days, the organic label requires closer attention.

“If the organic products you are buying are natural foods – like fruits and vegetables – then people may make a moral or ethical choice to buy it because it contains fewer or no pesticides. That side of things is absolutely fine. Paying more for organic fruit and vegetables, for this reason, may also be okay because the cost is associated with the farmer’s costs [of certification].

“But if you are buying an organic product for the [nutritional benefit you believe it conveys] and pay more for it, then you are probably not going to get the health or nutritional benefit you think you will be getting.”

“It’s not 100 per cent conversion from organic to healthy, especially with packaged foods.”

Dynan recommends that shoppers make up their own mind as to whether an organic label is worth the cost by evaluating the nutritional content on the back of the product packaging.

“It’s not 100 per cent conversion from organic to healthy, especially with packaged foods.”

“You have to get good at reading labels to determine if a product is healthy or not. The ingredients of a food product are listed on the packet in descending order, according to the amount that is in a product. So if sugar, fat or salt are listed as the first few ingredients, then it doesn’t matter if the food is organic: it may still be unhealthy.”

More research is needed to better understand the psychological processes underlying the halo effect and its relationship to organic food purchases. 


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