Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but an apple? Well it may be more than just an apple. Is it normal? Local? Organic? Is that piece of cheese low fat, is the coffee fair trade?

Psychologists have known of a "health halo", centered around foods thought to be "healthy", whether or not they actually are (like low fat yogurt, which may be low fat, but is often high in sugar). There is also a "health halo" around foods that are organic. People think organic foods are lower in fat and lower calorie than foods without the organic label.


And it turns out that there might be another kind of halo around organic food: a moral one. But not the kind that makes you want to adopt a puppy.

Eskine, KJ. "Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments" Social Psychology and Personality Science, 2012.

This study received a lot of coverage in the media (and on the blogs!). And it's not hard to see why. Organic food is a massive seller, and many people have lots of reasons to love it or think it's not all that.

But the question for this study is this: does organic food make you a better person? Does it make you more likely to help someone out or judge someone less harshly?

To look at this, the author of the study recruited 62 undergrads and divided them into three groups. One group saw images of organic foods: spinach, apples, tomatoes, and carrots. The second saw "comfort" foods: ice cream, cookies, chocolate, and brownies. And the third say neutral foods: unlabeled mustard, oatmeal, rice, and beans.

(Fig. 1. I'm hungry now)

After ranking the foods for "desirability" (to cover the real point of the test), the author handed them another packet with a series of questionable moral scenarios. These were things like consensual cousin sex, lawyers trolling ERs for lawsuits, and a guy eating his already dead dog. Eskine (the author of the study), asked them to rate the morality of the deeds on a scale of 1 (totally ok) to 7 (totally NOT ok). Last of all, the students were told another prof in the department needed volunteers for a much time could they spare?

What Eskine found was that after viewing organic food pictures, students rated moral transgressions (like humping your cousin) as being worse than students who saw the normal or comfort foods. They also said they could volunteer significantly less time for the other prof's experiment (what psychologists call reduced prosocial behavior). The results persisted no matter what the students thought of the desirability of the food. Seeing the organic food made people less nice, not nicer. The people viewing the junk food, on the other hand, were nicer, volunteering the most time and judging people the least.

Eskine concluded that the people who saw the organic foods felt confirmed in their moral identities (in other words, they were self-satisfied), which made them less likely to help others. I think this could definitely be the case, but I also wonder if there's an alternate explanation.

You see, in previous studies (which Eskine cited), people who ate sweet foods were afterward more sweet tempered, they had higher ranking of altruism. And all of the 'comfort' foods seen here...were sweet. This might mean that people would be more likely to be altruistic anyway. It makes me wonder how the rankings in this study might compare to if people viewed other comfort foods that weren't sweet, like chips or chicken soup or tater tots?

And while what's being studied here is the organic food and the effect it had, I can't help but wonder about the other end, the comfort food, the 'bad' food. Is it that organic food makes people less altruistic, or does comfort food make them moreso? Why does it make them volunteer more? I personally wonder if it had anything to do with guilt. These are college students. Half of them are female. If they are anything like most of the women I meet every day, seeing, and wanting ice cream will induce immediate feelings of guilt. This is food that has been hammered into our heads, not as comfort food, but as a sin. So I wonder if the comfort food makes people feel guilty, and thus makes them feel like they need moral penance. Alternatively, it could be the very healthfulness of the organic foods presented (note that they were all vegetables and fruits, no organic yogurt or ice cream or steak) that was making people feel self-righteous. I wonder how the organic versions and the subsequent moral judgements would compare against non-organic versions of those same foods.

But the next time you buy organic and are feeling a little self-righteous, you might want to watch your moral halo. Instead of making you more likely to help others, it might make you the subject of a Portlandia skit.

Eskine, K. (2012). Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612447114