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Beware foods with 'organic' label -- they may be higher in calories than you think

April 30, 2010 |  5:38 pm

Organic foods are better for you, right? And they have fewer calories and taste better, correct? If that's your across-the-board assessment of things organic, maybe it's time to re-evaluate.

Femj96gy The Cornell University Food and Brand Lab did a study to determine whether the perception of organic foods matched reality. Spoiler alert: It didn't.

Researchers randomly assigned 54 college students to try cookies that were labeled "organic," or had no label. The cookies in both conditions were Oreos made with organic flour and sugar. Yes, they really have Oreos like that. We were surprised too.

The participants also filled out a questionnaire about their level of environmental awareness and behavior (whether they recycled, liked being outdoors, etc.) and whether they tended to buy organic products and read nutrition labels.

Those who ate the cookies labeled organic thought they had 40% fewer calories than the unlabeled cookies. They also rated their appearance more appetizing, and higher in fiber than the other cookies.

Those who thought the organic-labeled cookies had fewer calories tended to be people who usually buy organic foods and who pay attention to nutrition labels. But people who like activities such as nature hikes also thought the organic-labeled cookies tasted less natural.

"An organic label gives a food a 'health halo,' " said study co-author Brian Wansink, in a news release. Wansink is the director of the Food and Brand Lab and was also involved with the study on recipes in the "Joy of Cooking" becoming more caloric over the years, as well as the recent study on increasing portion sizes in artistic depictions of the Last Supper. "It's the same basic reason people tend to overeat any snack food that's labeled as healthy or low fat. They underestimate the calories and over-reward themselves by eating more."

His recommendation for how to estimate calories in organic foods if they're not available? "Take your best guess at its calorie count. Then double it. You'll end up being more accurate, and you'll probably eat a lot less."

The study was presented at the recent Experimental Biology conference in Anaheim.

-Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Joel Junker / Archive Photos

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