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Are shoppers being duped by the ‘health halo effect’?

It's a common refrain when parents are doling out after-school or play-date snacks: "It's organic!" Even if it's cheesy fish crackers, cookies or chips, somehow the guilt associated with snacking melts away.

Now, a new study provides some insight into what's going on. It starts in the grocery store, where many of us perceive an organic label as bestowing just about every health benefit imaginable.

Researchers at Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab found that the "health halo effect" goes far beyond knowing that food was grown or raised without nasty herbicides and pesticides. It can influence perceptions of taste, calories and value, too, according to the Cornell release.

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For the study, 115 people were recruited from a shopping mall in Ithaca, N.Y., and asked to evaluate three pairs of products, two yogurts, two cookies and two portions of potato chips. In each pair, one item was labelled organic and the other regular, although both were the same – and actually organic, according to the release.

The "organic" cookies and yogurt were estimated to have significantly fewer calories, and participants said they were willing to pay up to 23.4 per cent more for them. They were also described as tasting lower in fat. The "organic" cookies and chips were assumed to be more nutritious. "Organic" chips were considered more appetizing and the "organic" yogurt was considered more flavourful.

The one outlier: Participants said the "regular" cookies tasted better. Researchers guessed that this could be the result of a stubborn belief that healthy foods are not tasty.

This study builds on previous work on the powerful – and easily reproduced – effects of "health halo" marketing on foods such as Subway sandwiches on our ability to estimate calories.

And it also adds to the heated debate around the nutritional value of organics, most recently sparked by a Stanford University study, which also led to a call to redefine the goals of organic farming away from personal health to the broader realm of the health of the environment.

In the meantime, how to battle our own biases at the supermarket?

The Cornell group found that the people who were the least susceptible were those who "regularly read nutrition labels, those who regularly buy organic food, and those who exhibit pro-environmental behaviours (such as recycling or hiking)," according to the release.

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Oh, and another pro tip from them: Cookies are still cookies, folks.

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