Study shows ‘virtuous labels’ influence taste buds

A study by Swedish researchers shows how ‘virtuous labels’ – such as organic, or eco-friendly – can influence consumers’ taste buds.

As part of a study by a team at the University of Gavle, researchers asked students to taste two cups of coffee, one of which they were told was organic (specifically ‘ekologiskt’, the word used in Sweden to denote organic) and the other, non-organic. In fact, both cups contained identical freshly brewed non-organic coffee.

The team found that participants preferred the taste of, and were willing to pay more for, the ‘organic’ coffee – at least those of them who had earlier scored high in a questionnaire on attitudes towards sustainable consumer behaviour. Of these ‘high sustainability consumers’ 74% preferred the supposedly organic coffee. Strikingly, ‘low sustainability consumers’ demonstrated no preference for either coffee.

The researchers also found that the organic label effect didn’t appear to be a consequence of social desirability, as participants were just as strongly influenced when reporting their taste estimates and willingness to pay anonymously as when they were asked to talk about their experience with a researcher.

Writing about their findings, the Swedish team said: “An increasingly large number of products are marked with morally loaded labels such as fair-trade and organically produced – labels associated with social or environmental responsibility that speak to our conscience. We show that eco-labels not only promote a willingness to pay more for the product but they also appear to enhance the perceptual experience of the product’s taste.”

Lead researcher, Patrik Sorqvist, added: “In the case of crop products, like coffee, consumers could quite easily imagine production differences that could influence taste, such as crop spraying.”

Natural Products Scandinavia and the Nordic Organic Food Fair take place in  Malmö, Sweden on 26-27 October 2014.