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Would a cookie by any other name taste as sweet?

If the label says "organic," it might taste even sweeter.

That is according to a new study from the Food & Brand Lab at Cornell University. The researchers conducted an experiment asking 115 participants at a mall food court to taste foods – cookies, chips and yogurt – with one option labelled "organic" and one labelled "regular," and then report on their perceptions of the foods' health value and taste.

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The trick: The side-by-side foods were identical organic products. However, overwhelmingly, people's perceptions experienced what the researchers call a "health halo effect." Not only did they believe mostly that the products labelled as organic were tastier, but the mean responses indicate that respondents believed these products were lower in fat and calories, higher in fibre, and more nutritious than the (identical) regular products.

"We expected that participants were more likely to estimate low calories. We found the results much stronger and much broader than we expected," said Dr. Mitsuru Shimizu, a co-author of the study, which will be published in the July issue of the journal Food Quality and Preference.

It has powerful implications for food marketers, and demonstrates how a simple label can sway consumer perceptions – and impact their purchasing decisions.

The demand for organic products is growing. In Canada, the overall organic consumer market has gone from $1-billion in 2006 to closer to $3-billion today, according to the Canada Organic Trade Association.

That growth is driven partly by the halo effect of the "organic" moniker. According to a 2010 report by Nielsen, 24 per cent of North American consumers surveyed said they choose to buy organic products. Among the reasons for preferring organic foods, respondents explained they believe these foods are "healthier," "more nutritious" and "taste better."

The Cornell study found that participants were willing to pay 23.4 per cent more for the organic foods than the regular options.

But the growth has also created concern among some in the industry who are wary of organic products being seen as a marketing ploy. Peter Neal, co-owner of Toronto-based Neal Brothers Foods, says that he has watched the industry change from 25 years ago when they started the business.

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"There are more companies that splash 'organic' on it, and charge more to take advantage," he said.

Neal Brothers does not want to mislead customers into believing foods – such as their cheese puffs or tortilla chips – are healthy, just because they are labelled organic, he said. "We certainly don't believe that an organic cheese puff is going to make you live longer. By presenting an organic cheese snack, if you can provide a product that's a bit better than what's on the market by cleaning up the ingredients – ingredients people can pronounce."

"You can go to the U.S. and find organic cigarettes," said Matthew Holmes, executive director of the Canada Organic Trade Association. "That's just a sign of how organic has grown."

But the very growth in the industry may have an opposite effect: The Cornell study also found that people who were more accustomed to reading nutritional information on products, and who bought organic more often, were also less susceptible to the "health halo" of the organic label. As sales continue to increase, then, consumers may be more educated.

"We want consumers to really understand what organic means. We've made real efforts not to abuse what could be seen as a fashionable increase in organic sales," Mr. Holmes said. "You can make a salty or sugary product and call it organic. It's not going to have the staying power with consumers."

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