An "organic" label describes how a product is produced, nothing more. No synthetic ingredients; everything grown without artificial fertilizers and pesticides, no irradiation or sewage sludge. Psychologically, however, people see the green label as a permissive green light, which might lead to unhealthy eating.
At the Experimental Biology 2011 meeting this weekend, Cornell researchers presented data showing how an organic label can produce a "halo effect" for foods. People seem to think, "If it's organic, it must be good in other ways." According to the press release from the American Society for Nutrition, research participants served "organic" food believed the snacks had a surprising range of other positive traits, all totally unrelated to an organic production process:
Confirming Lee's health halo hypothesis, the subjects reported preferring almost all of the taste characteristics of the organically-labeled foods, even though they were actually identical to their conventionally-labeled counterparts. The foods labeled "organic" were also perceived to be significantly lower in calories and evoked a higher price tag. In addition, foods with the "organic" label were perceived as being lower in fat and higher in fiber. Overall, organically-labeled chips and cookies were considered to be more nutritious than their "non-organic" counterparts.
This could be the opening of a broad new research agenda in food psychology, but certainly further studies need to be conducted before we fret too much about these findings. In the meantime, keep reading those nutrition facts!