Organic foods: Neurologically less rewarding

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The study, published in Cogent Psychology, successfully demonstrates for the first time that different parts of the brain are activated when perceiving popular food brands as opposed to organic brands. The new insight marks a breakthrough in the understanding of consumer neuroscience and behaviour, and may ultimately lead to consumers choosing healthier eating options.

Organic foods are becoming increasingly popular in Western societies. In Europe alone, the total revenue from organic food nearly doubled from €10.8 billion in 2004 to €19.6 billion in 2010. This is because consumers view organic foods as healthier and more environmentally friendly in comparison to conventional food, whilst also linking organic foods to a respectably healthy lifestyle. But what is going on in the brain when consumers are exposed to organic food branding?

To find out, Dr Kai Fehse of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich led an experiment to measure the brain activity of 23 participants when perceiving different brands. Participants were shown images of different brand logos for the same kind of food: one organic brand and one “popular” brand. The participants were then invited to rate the brands’ strength, attractiveness, healthiness, tastiness, and frequency of consumption.

The results showed that there are in fact different neural responses to popular brands and organic food brands. Whilst regions of the brain associated with “rewarding stimuli” were activated by popular food brands, different areas usually associated with more rational decision making were involved for organic brands. Fehse discovered that organic food brands involve more cognitive deliberation and make us think about their value with less rewarding force than popular brands. The study also found that judgements about a food’s “tastiness” and “healthiness” are also affected by branding.

The study was conducted as part of a wider project on obese patients and psychological effects of gastric surgery.

The article, ‘Organic or popular brands—food perception engages distinct functional pathways. An fMRI study’, published in the open access journal Cogent Psychology, is free to read and download via this permanent link: