Did you say Local or Low-cal?

Bakery Treats at August First

I just ate a super-delicious and decadent cinnamon roll from one of Burlington’s local bakeries, August First. Guilty over-indulgence? Well, maybe, but at least I was supporting a local business. And – hey – it’s made from local ingredients, so it couldn’t have been so bad for me…

Cinnamon roll was here...

…Tell me I’m not the only person who has gone through this kind of thought process: you justify a poor food choice just because the food is made from local ingredients.

While many of us might associate eating locally with purchasing or growing our own fresh produce, there are plenty of other foods we can also eat locally. I have recently been visiting a few of my favorite places in downtown… Last night, I ordered a pepperoni pizza from Flatbread. This morning, I stopped into August First Bakery for a cinnamon roll. While I don’t know what was local about my foods, attractive signs like these make me suspect that at least some of the ingredients in my dinner and breakfast were local:

So, here I am, purchasing all sorts of good local goodness, but have I been eating healthy, balanced meals? Yikes no!

The point I’m trying to make is that labels can have this ‘halo effect’ on our perception of how healthy our meals are. Brian Wansink and his team at the Food and Brands Lab at Cornell have been performing all sorts of elegant experiments to prove this.

For instance, Wansink showed that two groups of people fed the same fast-food taco salad made dramatically different estimations about the number of Calories they were eating; when the salad was falsely labeled as if it were catered from a natural foods café, people thought the salad was way lower in Calories! (Here’s a fun read summarizing some of Wansink’s findings, and a more recent study on the effects of food labels on food choices.)

Surprise! Our decisions about how good a food tastes or how healthy it is are not always made as rationally as we’d guess. Instead, we rely on expectations based on things as trivial as a label. Ever thought a food was better for you only because it said it was ‘farm fresh’ or ‘locally produced?’

So what does this have to do with kids playing around in the garden? In recent years, many schools have been adopting school gardens, often in conjunction with the Farm to School program. One goal of Farm to School is to build meaningful connections to foods grown in the community – whether it’s by hanging out with a farmer, providing education about how food is grown, or offering a hands-on lesson in the garden. The hope is that these activities will result in better eating habits. While locally grown food is oftentimes fruits and veggies, could we mistakenly be telling kids that anything local is healthy?

While I was hoping to hear people at Flatbread and August First justify their food choices based on what was local, I didn’t, and it could be that this is a decision we’re making internally – even on a more subconscious level. But can you think of a time you might have fallen for the label trick: ever caught yourself over-valuing a food just because it was made locally?

WP 4/6

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2 comments on “Did you say Local or Low-cal?

  1. Sarah says:

    I think you have made an important application of Wansink’s concept of tha halo effect. While I’m not sure I’ve thought that a local item was more nutritious than a differnt option, I have eaten produce from a farmer’s market without washing it. The assumption was based in a halo effect… oh this is safe (ie. free of pesticides or food bourne illness), it is local and right here is the farmer…. just silly assumptions that I make regularly that haven’t killed me yet.

    • That’s a great example of another halo effect of local foods. I too have mistakenly jumped to the conclusion that local food is safer food! The serious flooding caused this Fall by Hurricane Irene – contaminating a lot of crops – now makes me think twice about the invincibility of local foods…

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