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Attitudes Toward Organic Labels Depend on Consumers' Values

ITHACA, N.Y.—Labeling food as “organic" actually may flip the “halo" effect for ethical food labels depending on consumers’ values, according to a new study published in the journal Appetite.

Researchers at Cornell University conducted a two-part study to explore halo effects arising from advertising claims on food packaging (e.g., “organic," “no cholesterol") that promote misperceiving products more positively on other dimensions (e.g., low-calorie, low-fat).

For part one of the study, researchers asked 215 students whether they thought organic food was healthier and 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.

“The personal values of the rater mattered," said Jonathon Schuldt, Cornell assistant professor of communication. “Our data suggest when organic practices do not appeal to a consumer’s values, they expect organic food to taste worse."

For the second part of the study, researchers explored whether there were contexts in which people 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." 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 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. 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.

“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."

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