It’s that time of year when weight-conscious people, determined to shed the pounds they put on during the holidays, pay closer attention to food labels. While the savvy are skeptical of overreaching health claims, newly published research suggests an entirely different assertion can lull us into caloric complacency.
It finds socially conscious consumers are more likely to perceive a chocolate bar as being low in calories if it is labeled “fair trade.”
“Ethical food claims can bias consumers to see poor-nutrition foods in a healthier light,” reports a research team led by psychologist Jonathon Schuldt of California State University, Northridge. The researchers call this an example of the “halo effect,” where one positive attribute leads us to assume the presence of others.
As the researchers point out, the term “fair trade” signals an imported item “was produced in accordance with certain progressive socioeconomic values,” such as paying workers a living wage and not despoiling the local environment. However admirable, these practices have absolutely nothing to do with the product’s nutritional content.
And yet, many of us make that mental link. At least, that’s what Schuldt and his colleagues concluded after performing two experiments, which they describe in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science.
The first featured 56 online participants, all of whom read a one-paragraph description of a fictional brand of chocolate. Half were told it was a “fair-trade” product, one produced by a manufacturer that pays farmers “50 percent more than the standard market price for cocoa, to ensure that the farmers receive a fair wage for their efforts.”
All were asked to estimate whether the chocolates in questions contained more, fewer, or about the same number of calories compared to other brands. “The chocolate was judged as significantly lower-calorie when it was described as fair trade,” the researchers report.
A second study featured 192 students at a Midwestern university. They read one of three descriptions of the fictional brand of chocolate: one that portrayed the company as ethical in its treatment of workers and suppliers, another that portrayed it as unethical, or a third that did not mention the subject.
As in the first experiment, participants estimated whether the product was above- or below-average in calories. They also responded to a series of questions that gauged how important a role ethical considerations play in their food choices.
The researchers found the higher the participants scored on that final question — that is, the more they took ethical considerations into account while choosing food products — the more likely they were to succumb to the halo effect. Those who took social issues seriously, and used them to guide their purchasing decisions, were more likely to think of the ethically produced chocolate as low in calories, and the unethically produced chocolate as high in calories.
For them, the sense that the product was produced under morally substandard conditions led to the assumption it was less-healthy — or at least more fattening, relative to other brands. The researchers consider this illogical leap particularly problematic since “there is relatively little government regulation of ethics- or value-based claims.”
“To the extent that such claims encourage consumers to view poor-nutrition foods as healthy,” they write, “the government might seek to regulate their appearance on food packaging as they currently do for other type of claims.”
So as federal authorities consider new guidelines for food labels, they would be wise to keep in mind that even seemingly irrelevant claims can impact our perception of a product. For many people, the label “Fair Trade” essentially translates to “Boosts your moral fiber.” And that has to be good for you, right?