American consumers skeptical about “organic” labels, US research finds

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 12th December 2012

Labelling food as “organic” may not always lead to a positive impression, according to a recent US study by Cornell University.

The research, published in late November 2012 online in the journal Appetite, flips the notion of a “halo” effect for ethical food labels.

The study argues that not all labels lead consumers to have a “healthy” impression of specific foods. The two-part study found that some conditions can produce a negative impression of organic labels among consumers, due to the consumer’s values.

In the first part of the study, Jonathon Schuldt, Cornell assistant professor of communication, and Mary Hannahan, a student at the University of Michigan, asked 215 students whether they thought organic food “was healthier and also tastier” than conventional food. While most agreed that organics were a “healthy choice” compared with conventional food, fewer expected organic food to taste good by comparison. This latter finding was especially true for participants who had low concern for the environment.

In part two of the study, the researchers explored whether there were contexts in which people who were pro-environment might have a negative impression of organic labels. The researchers had 156 participants read one of two versions of a fake news article. 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.

The results from the second part of the study 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.

Professor Schuldt said that “ethical labels could have an unintended backfire effect.”

“It’s not the case that you can label a food organic and expect that everyone will perceive it more positively,” he said.

Future research may involve taste tests of organic and conventional foods to see if personal values influence a taster’s perceptions when actually eating a food, Schuldt added.