Don’t Fall for the ‘Health Halo’: Know What You Get When You Shop Organic

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About the Author: Ashley Welch is a freelance journalist with a specialty in health and wellness reporting in the New York City area.
Talk to farmers at your local market to find out if their products are organic.

Talk to vendors at your local farmers market to find out if their produce is grown organically.

When you see an organic label on a product, are you more inclined to buy it? While there are many sound environmental and health reasons to opt for organic, a recent study found that many people are swayed simply by the “health halo” effect, favoring products solely because of their organic label.

Researchers from Cornell University recruited 115 participants and asked them to sample and evaluate three pairs of products — two yogurts, two cookies and two potato-chip portions. One item from each pair was labeled “organic” and the other “regular.” However, the products were in reality all organic.

The results showed that even though the products were exactly the same, people strongly favored the foods labeled “organic.” The products were estimated to have fewer calories and be more nutritious when labeled “organic.” People were also willing to pay 23.4 percent more for them.

The labels even affected the participants’ perception of taste. The chips and yogurt were reported to be more appetizing when labeled “organic.” Participants reported the organic-labeled products tasted “lower in fat,” though the “regular” cookies were said to taste better.

Do you have preconceived notions about organic foods? Rachel Begun, M.S., R.D., spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, offers some tips to consider when shopping organic to help break the health halo and shop smart.

1. Organic doesn’t mean more nutritious. Many people believe that organically produced food is higher in nutrients than its conventional counterpart, but that isn’t necessarily the case. “The term ‘organic’ defines the way farmers grow and harvest agricultural products, including fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat,” Begun says. “It is not a reference to the nutritional value.”

Whether it’s healthier or not depends on your definition of healthy. A highly publicized Stanford University study last year noted organic foods have no additional nutrients and the same risk of contamination by bacteria such as E. coli. However, researchers reported that organic produce contains 30 percent less detectable pesticide residue and 33 percent less antibiotic-resistant bacteria in organically raised pork and chicken.

2. Check for the USDA label and talk to farmers at your local market. The USDA National Organic Program has strict production and labeling requirements. It’s this certification label you should look out for to determine the food you’re buying is really organic.

However, certification is expensive and some farmers and food producers choose to grow food that is organic, but don’t go through the certification process, Begun says. “Talk to farmers at your local farmers market and CSA to determine if this is the case.”

3. Consider the pricing of organic foods. Organic products are more expensive than other foods. So which foods are worth the extra money?

“Ask yourself where it makes sense for your family to spend your organic dollars,” Begun says. “I usually recommend spending on the foods your family eats a lot of.”

Everyday items like fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat are good choices for buying organic, Begun says. “But if blueberries are an occasional treat in your house, then it may not be worth it to buy organic.”

4. Use common sense! Read nutrition labels when you shop and pay attention to the ingredient list. “A certified organic cookie may be made from organic ingredients, but that doesn’t mean it contains any less sugar, fat or calories,” Begun says.

Photo credit: Peter Buckingham

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  1. Very well written and informative article!

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