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Why organic is not the health food you think it is

Pretty people must be smart. Generous folks must be nice. So we think. Psychologists have long known that one positive trait can cast a "halo" over a person so that there's an assumption of more. And guess what? The "halo" effect could apply to organic foods, according to recent research.

Jenny Wan-chen Lee, a graduate student in Cornell University, surveyed 144 people at a local mall. These subjects perceived foods labeled "organic" to be lower in calories, lower in fat, higher in fiber and generally more nutritious than their conventionally labeled counterparts—even if they were actually the very same product.

In another like-minded study—a recent poll conducted by the American Heart Association—61 percent of Americans thought that sea salt is a low-sodium version of table salt. Like the "halo" effect for organics, people likely are assuming that something deemed "natural" is more nutritious.

This is a tough one.

On one hand, these new findings are good news for natural products stores. You're likely to sell more organic chips and organic cookies because research has shown that organic strawberries are perhaps more nutritious than conventional.

On the other hand, this could be bad news for customers' health. You're likely to sell more organic chips and organic cookies because research has shown that organic strawberries are perhaps more nutritious than conventional.

If overall sales are any indicator, the "halo" effect seems to be working. The organic industry grew nearly eight percent in 2010, according to the Brattleboro, Vt.-based Organic Trade Association.

In the long run, however, I don't think it will help the cause of organics to sell customers on false hope. Let's face it: That organic twinkie still wouldn't be a health food.  People will eventually catch on to their bogus notions, and then they'll likely lose faith entirely in organics.

Michael Kanter, industry veteran and owner of Cambridge Naturals in Cambridge, Mass., says his store offers integrity. "We want customers to know that we've agonized over what we carry and that we stock only the best products," Kanter says. The trust between Kanter and his customers seems to give his store an advantage over other retailers—that's the store's value.

If he were to sell people on organic products for the wrong reasons, though, chances are the store would lose its worth.

That's why I think we need to actively promote organics for the right reasons instead of letting the "halo" effect guide consumers' purchases. We need to steer the conversation toward the honest-to-goodness environmental and health benefits of organic foods. And we need to shout out when organic foods offer a solution to the potential health problems associated with conventional foods.

Let's be honest about what organic is and is not.

And if knowing these true advantages, people don't choose organic over conventional products, then let's be a gracious loser.

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