If a box of chocolate cookies had an “organic” label, would you feel less guilty about eating them? Would you think they were more nutritious, or tastier?
Economists who study social psychology refer to something called the “halo effect,” a bias in judgment that causes you to assume that one positive attribute comes packaged with a bunch of others. For example, you might perceive your attractive coworker as being more capable as well.
According to a new study by Jenny Wan-chen Lee, a graduate student at Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, the halo effect extends to food too: if people are told a food is “organic,” they’re also biased to believe it’s more nutritious and better tasting.
Lee’s study involved 144 people, recruited at a local mall for a taste test: Lee presented shoppers with chocolate sandwich cookies, plain yogurt and potato chips, each in two varieties — “conventional” or “organic.” In reality, there was no difference between the food pairs; everything was organic.
Participants used a nine-point scale to rate various attributes of each food, including overall taste and estimated fat, fiber and calorie content. Tasters also estimated the price of each food.
Uniformly, the participants reported preferring the taste of the foods labeled “organic,” and believed them to be lower in fat, higher in fiber and lower in calories than the conventional alternatives. They also judged the organic foods to be higher in price.
Even in the cases of the cookies and chips — which wouldn’t be considered healthy under any circumstance — most participants believed that the organic versions were more nutritious.
The findings remind us not to let food labels fool us into overestimating a product’s real nutritional or caloric value. But the halo effect aside, the question is, do organics really taste better? Turns out, they often do — at least according to this taste test by professional chefs, organized by TIME. Whether they’re worth the premium in price, however, is up to you.
Lee’s study was presented at this year’s Experimental Biology meeting in Washington, D.C.