People Think Food Made by Responsible Companies is Healthier

A COMPANY that’s trying to save the world might nonetheless wreck your diet, suggests research published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

The research looked at whether consumers accurately assess the nutritional value of food products made by companies known for their corporate social responsibility. Put another way, if a cereal company touts its membership in something like 1% For The Planet, in which corporations donate 1% of their sales to environmental and social non-profits, do we think their granola is more healthful than it is?

Over the course of four differently organised studies, researchers found consistent evidence of what they call “extra-attribute inference”– drawing inferences from information provided by a company (“we engage in corporate social responsibility”) to make unrelated attributions to the company’s products (“given their corporate social responsibility, this food they make is good for me”). The researchers, led by John Peloza, marketing professor at the University of Kentucky, call this effect a “health halo.”

Most significantly, Peloza and his colleagues found that people underestimated the kilojoule content of food made by companies perceived as socially responsible. This underestimating, in turn, led to over-eating.

“Consumers who believe they are choosing healthy and safe products may, in fact, be choosing the opposite,” the researchers wrote. “Similarly, consumers who make these inferences may change their consumption patterns (e.g., eat more, etc.) under the false assumption that they are making healthy choices.”

The health-halo effect is so strong that it can affect how good we think a food tastes. Earlier research has found that people tend to think that more healthful food tastes worse than less healthful food. “Therefore, if consumers perceive products from companies with strong reputations for [corporate social responsibility] as relatively healthy, they should also perceive superior taste in products without strong reputations for [corporate social responsibility],” the researchers wrote.

That’s exactly what happened in one of the experiments, which involved granola bars. Participants who thought the bars’ maker was socially responsible (and therefore thought the bars were more healthful) said the bars tasted worse than did participants who didn’t attribute social responsibility to the bars’ maker.

The takeaway from this research is clear: Shop to support the planet’s health if that’s important to you, but don’t equate doing so with shopping for your health. Set aside whatever emotions a product induces and focus on the facts found on food labels.

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