A graduate student in Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Jenny Wan-chen Lee, has been looking into what’s known as “the halo effect” as it relates to food.
This so-called “halo effect” has long been recognized by psychologists as the phenomenon whereby we perceive a particular trait of a person and thus can be influenced by how we perceive other traits of the same individual. In other words, if we view an individual as attractive, we also believe them to be intelligent and nice.
According to Sciencedaily.com, “…growing literature suggests that the halo effect may also apply to foods, and ultimately influence what and how much we eat. For instance, research has shown that people tend to consume more calories at fast-food restaurants claiming to serve 'healthier’ foods, compared to the amount they eat at a typical burger-and-fry joint.”
Researchers say the reasoning for this is that when people perceive food as more nutritious, they let down their guard, quit calorie-counting and actually consume more calories.
The report by Sciencedaily.com also stated that this health halo effect also applies to certain foods considered by many to be especially healthy, such as organic products.
As research for her graduate studies at Cornell, Lee sought out to determine “whether the ‘health halo’ surrounding organic foods would lead people to automatically perceive them as tastier or lower in calories.”
Lee tested this question by conducting a double-blind, controlled trial in which she asked 144 subjects at the local mall to compare what they thought were conventionally and organically produced chocolate sandwich cookies, plain yogurt, and potato chips.
All of the products the mall-goers tasted were actually of the organic variety; Lee simply labeled them differently to give the participants the perception that they were different.
Lee asked participants to rate each food for 10 different attributes – overall taste, and perception of fat content, for example – using a scale from 1 to 9. She also asked them to estimate the number of calories in each food item and how much they would be willing to pay for the food.