Lost in processing? Organic’s ‘halo effect’ blunted in processed food

Research has suggested that the amount of processing of organic foods seems to be negatively associated with sales, suggesting that the nutritional benefits of consuming organic ingredients are somehow lost in processing. ©iStock/leventalbas

Organic claims for processed foods may not be particularly advantageous in promoting the benefits of the product, a study reckons.

Research looking into the well-established halo effect of the organic claim found its advantage less clear in processed foods compared to organic, conventional foods such as mashed potato and strawberry jam.

Overall, processed organic (vs. conventional) foods were perceived as tastier, more healthful or equally healthful but also as more caloric.

“We argue that the features of processed food may modulate the impact of the organic claim,” researchers from the Universities of Lisbon and London (Goldsmiths) observe.

“Uncovering the specific conditions in which food claims bias consumer's perceptions and behaviour may have important implications for marketing, health and public-policy related fields.”

The impact of the organic claim on product evaluation is a significant one with consumers associating the label with superior nutritional qualities and safer to consume.

Research also shows that when an unfamiliar brand sells an organic (vs. conventional) product, both the attitude towards that brand and brand trust are enhanced reflecting organic’s ‘halo effect’ label.

Study one

In the first of two studies, 182 participants began evaluating 32 food images of whole and processed food.

Half of the images depicted whole foods and included fruits (e.g., apples, strawberries, grapes) and vegetables (e.g., lettuce, zucchini, and potatoes).

The other half depicted processed foods and included sweets (e.g., ice cream, cake, and muffin) and meals (e.g., pasta, sandwich, and hamburger).

These images were labelled as organic and were compared to the conventional version in terms of perceived healthfulness, taste and caloric content.

Participants evaluated the examples of both whole and processed organic food as more healthful and tastier than their conventional alternative,

Whereas whole organic foods were perceived as having fewer calories than conventional alternatives, processed organic foods were perceived as having more calories than conventional foods.

When comparing whole and processed organic food, results showed an advantage of organic food over conventional food in terms of perceived healthfulness. 

Calorie content was perceived to be more prominent for whole than for processed food examples.

Study two

Similar in nature, the second study used a subset of whole foods to include examples such as meat or fish.

The processed food subset included examples that were fruit or vegetable-based to expand the number of food examples from 32 to 60.

Here, 76 participants were asked to view the 60 images that kept the original product identification visible (e.g., “chocolate chip muffins”).

Half of the images depicted packaged whole foods and included fruits (e.g., apples, grapes), vegetables (e.g., lettuce, potatoes), and fish and meat (e.g., salmon fillets, raw pork steaks).

The fruit and vegetables subsets matched the products used in Study 1 (four new products were added).

The remaining images depicted packaged processed foods and included sweets (e.g., ice-cream, cake) and meals (e.g., frozen pasta, pizza).

When evaluating organic versus conventional food, the team found that participants evaluated the examples of whole organic foods as more healthful, as tastier and as having fewer calories than their conventional counterparts.

However, for processed food the only advantage of organic over conventional food occurred at the taste level.

Processed organic examples were rated as having more calories than their conventional alternatives.

The team also found whole organic foods similar to those from study one, i.e., more healthful, tastier and less caloric than their conventional counterparts.

Processed organic foods were rated as being as healthful and tasty as conventional food and as having higher caloric content.

Finally, findings from whole and processed organic food showed that the advantage of organic food over conventional food in healthfulness and calories was more prominent in whole than in processed food.

Results showed again that the advantage of organic over conventional food in healthfulness and calories was more prominent in whole than in processed food.

Halo effect evident

“Results from two studies consistently showed that whole organic foods are perceived as more healthful, tastier and as having lower caloric content than their conventional counterparts,” the study concluded.

“This is the case for both evaluations of food exemplars and general evaluations of whole organic foods.”

“In our studies, this halo effect was systematically observed with two different measures (exemplars (examples) and general evaluations) and across all the evaluative dimensions examined.” 

The team also commented on the implications these results would have on food perception and behaviour.

From a marketing standpoint, it seems that the organic claim for processed foods may not be particularly advantageous in promoting positive inferences about the product, they commented.

In the case of whole foods, however, the organic claim may direct customers to assume beneficial proprieties not linked to the food production approach.

“In other words, the organic claim may serve as an extra cue for a more positive perception (and hopefully choice) of products such as fruits and vegetables.”

Source: Appetite

Published online ahead of print: doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2017.03.031

“Lost in processing? Perceived healthfulness, taste and caloric content of whole and processed organic food.”

Authors: Marília Prada, Margarida Garrido, David Rodrigues


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