Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


‘Fair Trade’ Chocolate Perceived as Healthier

• January 05, 2012 • 2:36 PM

For many consumers, the label “fair trade” promotes the inaccurate assumption that a chocolate bar is lower in calories than its competitors.

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?

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.