Organic junk food is still junk food

Consumer Reports News: July 16, 2010 03:08 PM

The organic cheese puffs were the final straw.  

I stared at the package, wondering: What are they thinking? Even if all the ingredients really are organic (which, as we’ve reported, they don’t have to be to get an organic label) how could a combination of mainly corn, fat, salt, and powdered cheese be considered good for you just because it has that word on its label?

But then I gave myself a reality smack. After all, I’ve bought into the “organic” hype for other foods. I’ve got boxes of organic macaroni and cheese in my pantry. And organic crackers. And don’t get me started on the number of organic pies or loaves of cinnamon bread I’ve bought in farmers’ markets.

Why does that word make people think that a food is intrinsically healthy? Yes, I want my foods to be lower in pesticides. And I value the benefits of organic farming for farm workers and the environment. But I should be able to leave that out of the equation when judging whether a food should be a part of my family’s diet. Organic garbage is still garbage.

I take some comfort knowing that I’m not the only person sometimes blinded by the “organic” halo. Researchers from the University of Michigan recently reported, in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, that people often said that a cookie labeled “organic” had fewer calories than other brands. But they were less likely to say that when discussing an otherwise identical, non-organic cookie—even though both products listed the same number of calories.
In a follow-up study, the researchers presented participants with a scenario of a woman trying to lose weight. They were told what the woman had for dinner, then asked if they thought it was okay for her to skip her daily run. People were much more lenient when she had an organic desert than when she had a conventional one. The researchers speculated that the tendency to equate “organic” with “healthy” and “low-calorie” offset the associations usually made with dessert as an indulgence.

Reading all this has made me feel a little bit like a fool. But it’s also made me a better shopper. I now cover up the word “organic” when looking at a package, and focus instead on the item itself, trying to judge whether I should feed this to my family at all. That decision comes first—organic can enter the conversation later. Organic sugar still has calories. Organic oil still has fat. A cheese puff is a cheese puff —eating an organic one should still be considered an indulgence.

—Erin Gudeux, sensory senior project leader

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