"Organic." The term conjures up all sorts of images — clean, fresh, pure, natural, healthy. It’s an overused word, for sure.

The organic label carries a lot of clout when applied to food, exerting what has been dubbed the “health halo effect” or the belief that a food is healthier if it is labeled organic. But is food that is labeled organic always a better choice than one that isn’t labeled as such?

Researchers from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab conducted a study to see just how far the the “health halo”extends. They discovered that not only do people deem foods labeled organic to be healthier, that little word can change a person’s perception of a food’s taste, caloric content, and value.

These shoppers tasted identical foods. The label was all that was different.

Over 100 people were recruited in a shopping mall to taste three pairs of products — two yogurts, two cookies, and two servings of potato chips. In each pair, one item was labeled “organic” and the other was labeled “regular.”

What the unsuspecting shoppers didn’t know was that all of the food items were identical, and all were organic.

People were asked to rate the taste of each item, estimate its caloric content, and then asked how much they would pay for the food. In addition, they were asked about their environmental and shopping habits.

So how did the shoppers rate these foods after they tasted them? They thought that the “organic” cookies and yogurt had fewer calories, tasted lower in fat, and were more nutritious than the “regular” versions. They were also willing to pay more — nearly 24 percent more — to buy them.

The “organic” chips were described as more appetizing, while the yogurt was said to be more flavorful. The “regular” cookies were described as tasting better, probably because people don’t believe that healthy foods can taste good. Remember that these shoppers tasted identical foods. The label was all that was different.

The “regular” cookies were described as tasting better, probably because people don’t believe that healthy foods can taste good.

People who were least susceptible to the “health halo” effect shared certain characteristics. They tended to be those who regularly read nutrition labels, purchased organic food, and engaged in environmentally-friendly behaviors like recycling.

When it comes to labeling food, the term, "organic" can only be used according to specific guidelines defined by the US Department of Agriculture. Organic animal foods (meat, poultry, eggs, dairy) must come from animals that are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. Plant foods labeled as organic must be grown without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. There are also standards for organic handling and processing of organically grown foods.

Organic food products use three types of claims on food packaging:

  • 100 percent organic — made only with organic ingredients.
  • Organic — made with at least 95 percent organic ingredients.
  • Made with organic products — must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.

Foods that meet the criteria to be labeled as 100 percent organic or organic may use the "USDA Organic" label.

Organic foods can be grown with pesticides or fertilizers, but with those found naturally in the environment, or with substances on an approved list, or with insects that act as natural predators against pests.

This is arguably the biggest health benefit of eating organic. Since the foods are not grown with harmful pesticides that tend to linger in the environment and accumulate in our bodies over time, your exposure to endocrine disruptors is greatly reduced. These compounds change the way the our hormones function, and can lead to a variety of health problems.

Bottom line: If you prefer organic food, read labels carefully and be sure you get what you are looking for. Just don’t forget that organic junk food is still just junk food.

You can read more about the study here.