Organic = diet food?

A new study from the University of Michigan points out (again) how little consumers understand about food label claims.  Or rather, how much wishful thinking consumers project onto health halo words.   “Fiber” of course, is one I’ve discussed.  Regardless of whether the non-digestible carbohydrate  – aka “fiber” –  actually performs any beneficial function, if “fiber” is on the label, it must be healthy.[poll id=”8″]

This study examined popular beliefs about “organic“.  It turns out, people wrongly associate the term with diet food.  The researchers did two studies with college students.  For the first study, 114 students read 2 different nutrition labels for cookies: ‘Oreo cookies’ or ‘Oreo cookies made with organic flour and sugar’.  The nutrition facts panel showed that both types of cookies had 160 calories per serving.  The students were asked whether either of these cookies could be eaten more often than other brands of cookies.  The students’ conclusion:  the organic cookies had fewer calories and could be eaten more often.   Well, this either says something about misperceptions of “organic” or it says something about college students ability to comprehend a Nutrition Facts panel.

In the second study, 215 students read about a woman who wanted to lose weight, while skipping her evening run.  And this fictional woman had chosen either an organic or non-organic dessert, or no dessert at all.  How did the students think her dessert choice affected her weight loss goal?   They thought if she ate the organic dessert, it was OK for her to skip exercise.  But she shouldn’t skip exercise after eating the non-organic dessert, and shouldn’t skip exercise after eating no dessert.  Now let’s think about this.  It sounds like the college students think “organic” actually might mean negative calories?  Because obviously if the woman eats no dessert, she’s not consuming any extra calories and might skip her exercise.  Yet organic calories were perceived as preferable to no calories for weight loss purposes.

The study authors concluded that “organic” could mislead consumers into thinking they’d eaten fewer calories than they actually had, and could also encourage over-eating, since people believe they can eat larger portions of diet foods.

Another organic myth was busted – again – by a large-scale review of studies that tried to show organic food is healthier.  The first problem with this is, what did the researchers mean by “healthier”?  Were organic product consumers free of disease?   How exactly was that defined, and how long were subjects followed?  For 30 or 40 years?  Or just a few weeks?  Or is it defined as the organic food containing more nutrients?  Or absence of pesticide residue?  Researchers have attempted to prove that organic meant more nutrients in the products, but that has been hard to do.  Frankly I think that’s the wrong goal.  Organic means produced without pesticides.  No more.  So the purported health benefits from organic foods would be related to absence of supposedly harmful residues.  In order to prove this is beneficial and healthier, researchers would need to follow a large group of subject for decades, with half the people consuming only organic foods and the other half consuming only non-organic foods.  I hope you see the extreme difficulty of controlling a study like that.  What if an organic-eating subject moved to a place where organic foods were less available?  What if a non-organic subject suddenly wanted to switch to eating organic?  What if some subjects simply stop following their assigned diet and don’t bother telling the researchers?   Realistically, a definitive study that proves anything about organic foods is not going to be done.  If you believe in organic, then you can buy those products, but you can’t accurately claim they’ve been proven to be healthier.  And they definitely aren’t lower calorie.

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