Is Organic Food a Scam?

Whole Paycheck Pauper? You’re Paying 47% More For Psychology.

 

Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today

organic purple grapes

Source: Pixabay

Here’s food for thought: Taste happens in your head, not your mouth. Color, for instance, is a strong influence on how we perceive flavor. Purple grapes don’t look quite right when served on a blue plate. Similar color contrast impressions operate at multiple levels both psychologically and in the brain. It may be that the term “blue plate special” became popular during the 1930s Depression when cooks noticed that customers were satisfied with smaller portions when meals were served on a blue plate. Shape affects gustatory judgments, too. An angular plate emphasizes the sharpness of a dish. Weight also matters: the more heft a bowl has the more satiated you’ll feel no matter how much or little you eat [1].

Labeling is powerful: In blind tastings people judge wine as tasting superior when told it costs a lot despite being exactly the same drink as the competitors they taste. Studies repeatedly show that consumers can’t detect any difference between organic–labeled and conventionally grown vegetables even when 30% of those tested thought that organic vegetables had to taste better [2].

Expectation and belief strongly shade how food tastes, even when it is served blind or in black glassware. A lack of visual cues can make it impossible to tell one flavor from another. The 8% of men who are red–green colorblind, for example, can’t tell the difference between a rare steak and one well done. One would think that a tough texture gave the overcooked steak away, but visual cues, or their absence, outweigh other signals.

Now imagine fields of old–fashioned produce. Chickens clucking in the yard. A nice image, but not necessarily reality. As organic products have gained in popularity the incentive to industrialize has influenced producers. That’s perfectly legal because “organic” by definition means only not sprayed with synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. That leaves more than 20 chemicals approved for organic farming that may not be any less risky or more sustainable than synthetic ones [3].

One USDA report showed that 43% of 571 samples labeled organic contained prohibited pesticide residues. Some were mislabeled regular produce. Others were downwind from prohibited pesticides used in conventional fields nearby [4]. Major brands often their organic crops next to conventional ones, so it’s no surprise they’re contaminated.

Labels have become a problem: Organic isn’t much about food at all. It’s now an image and testament to a lifestyle, a virtuous story about the person whose kitchen it fills. People choose it because they value romanticized notions of health, quality, the natural world. Marketers know that we’re swayed by confirmation bias so they can sell us products that don’t live up to an imagined ideal. Confirmation bias is basically believing evidence that supports what you already believe while rejecting whatever doesn’t fit.

“Organic” once did mean more traditional farming practices and less–processed raw ingredients. Our brains still hang on to that ideal even in the face of negative evidence. Attached to beliefs and symbols of a principled lifestyle, cognitive bias nudges us to reject contrary facts. Advertisers claim their organic cereal is healthier, and our critical thinking forgets that frosted cereals are nutritionally poor choices no matter which way you grow, grind, and bake them.

The smokiest mirror of the organic industrial complex may be that its system is based on trust. An investigation by the Wall Street Journal found that 47% of USDA certifying agents—people accredited by USDA and trusted to inspect and certify organic farms and suppliers—failed to uphold basic Agriculture Department standards at least once. Caveat emptor: claims of health benefits and “natural” ingredients can be meaningless when we take producers at their literal word [6].

There is more to labels than meets the eye, and the psychology of food marketing has yet to change reality. Swedish researchers concluded that “choosing a lifestyle based upon an organic diet constitutes a return to the natural world on a philosophical level, whereas on a psychological level it connects one to aspects such as identity, values, and well-being” [7]. Organic chickens may be “cage–free” and have “outdoor access,” but that doesn’t mean they’re not still living in crowded factory–conditions–plus–window [5]. You have to look beyond the label. As for moral superiority, that can’t fit in a shopping cart anyway.

[1] Ariely, D., Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations. 2016: Simon and Schuster

[2] Gneezy, U. and J.A. List, The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. 2013.

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