If you were offered an organic margarita at a restaurant, would you order it? Would it make you feel like you were being just a little bit healthier, going for the organic version instead of the typical sugary margarita?
If you answered yes, you're not alone: Research shows that the term "organic" translates to "healthier" in many people's minds. But the truth is, organic is not the same as healthy, or even healthier.
Products labeled organic do have to meet certain requirements. If the product is marketed as "100 percent organic," all ingredients are required to have been grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, and ionizing radiation. If the product is simply "organic," 95 percent must come from organic ingredients.
Let's consider that organic margarita. The organic label likely means that most of the ingredients were grown using organic guidelines. The ingredients used in a margarita are typically tequila, a sweetener (usually agave syrup in organic brands), lime, and water. Although salt is frequently used to rim the glass, this is not considered part of the margarita itself. An organic margarita will be roughly the same amount of calories, the same amount of alcohol, and the same amount of sugar as a regular margarita. But is this what we perceive, as customers? Research says no.
It has been demonstrated that humans tend to give a "halo" spin on other people or things. For example, research has clearly shown that many people give the "halo" assumption of laziness or uncleanliness to obese people, or the assumption of intelligence to attractive people.
More recently, researchers have discovered that we do the same thing with our food. For example, one study revealed that people tend to think organic means lower calories. The participants assumed that the organic cookies they were given were lower in calories than non-organic alternatives. In reality, the cookies were exactly the same. Yet the organic label made people think they were different.
Another study found that people were more likely to rate what they thought were organic cookies, yogurt, and potato chips as tastier than their non-organic versions, even though the foods tested were not different at all, aside from the label. And other studies yet revealed that people may eat more overall calories when they think they're eating organic food, because they're more likely to eat a bigger portion or add an "indulgence" such as regular soda or dessert.
So, what does this mean for a customer ordering an organic margarita? Research indicates that an organic label may be the trigger that leads to overeating (or overdrinking). In other words, not only is that organic margarita not a healthier option, but it may be the catalyst for diet sabotage. Luckily, awareness is the kryptonite of the health halo: Simply knowing that you may be influenced to eat or drink more because of this perception of health should help you to keep that pitfall in check. Enjoy that margarita, but remember that all calories count—even the organic ones!
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Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.