Norbert Schwarz of the Michigan Ross School of Business, Jonathon Schuldt of California State University-Northridge and Dominique Muller of the University of Grenoble in France conducted two studies to see if ethical claims on food packaging -- such as fair trade, indicating workers receive just compensation for their work -- exhibited the same "halo" effect as those of other food claims, such as foods low in fat or cholesterol.
"Building on the classic halo effect in social psychology and past work demonstrating health halos from relative nutrition claims, we demonstrate that a company's ethical actions -- which logically bear little upon the nutrient content of its products -- can nevertheless influence perceivers' nutrient and health-related inferences about food products," Schuldt said in a statement.
In the first study, some participants were told a hypothetical company paid cocoa farmers 50 percent more than the standard market price for cocoa, while other participants were told the farmers receive less-than-fair price.
In the second study, some participants were told the company offered excellent wages and healthcare to employees of its cocoa suppliers in West Africa, and donates more than other companies to local charities.
Other participants were told the opposite or nothing at all about the company's labor practices.
In both studies, researchers found not only was fair trade perceived as lower-calorie, but the chocolate was also judged as lower-calorie when a company is described as treating its workers ethically.