“Peterson’s” and “Emerson’s” chocolates are deliciously smooth artisanal treats from small chocolate companies known for their high quality. Both companies create their chocolates by hand in small batches, and each batch is thoroughly tested to ensure its quality.
The only difference is that Peterson’s chocolate is fair trade, meaning the company pays its cocoa farmers 50 percent more than the standard market price for cocoa to ensure that the farmers receive a fair wage for their efforts.
For consumers who care about how their food is made, those two words, “fair trade,” can make all the difference in which chocolate they perceive as “healthier.”
A recent study by California State University, Northridge psychology professor Jonathon Schuldt found that socially conscious consumers are more likely to perceive a chocolate bar as being lower in calories if it is labeled “fair trade.”
“There is a lot of previous research that suggests that food labels with things like ‘low fat’ and ‘organic’ can give rise to a ‘halo effect,’ positive traits that lead people to see food positively in other ways, even if they are not rationally connected to the label to begin with,” Schuldt said.
“Yet, ‘fair trade’ is a claim that is explicitly about social ethics. It’s about a company treating its workers very well, giving them just compensation for their efforts,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the nutritional aspects of the food. This halo effect leads people to see the food—a poor-nutrition food like chocolate—as having fewer calories.”
While Schuldt and his colleagues Dominique Muller, a psychology professor at the University of Grenoble France, and Norbert Schwarz, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, focused on how the halo effect of the words “fair trade” affected the perception of chocolate’s calorie count, the results of their study have broader implications on how marketing and social ethics can influence consumer choices for otherwise rational people.
“It’s important to keep in mind as a consumer what a claim really means and what it doesn’t,” Schuldt said. “Chocolate is still chocolate. It is still junk food.”
Schuldt, who earned his doctorate in social psychology from the University of Michigan, and his colleagues conducted two experiments.
The first experiment asked test subjects to read an online one-paragraph description of a fictional brand chocolate. Half were told it was a “fair-trade” product, one produced by a manufacturer that pays farmers “50 percent more than the standard market price for cocoa, to ensure that the farmers receive a fair wage for their efforts.”
The participants were asked if the chocolate contained fewer or more calories than other brands. They judged the fair trade chocolate as having significantly lower calories.
A second study asked participants to read one of three descriptions of the fictional brand of chocolate: one that portrayed the company as ethical in its treatment of workers and suppliers, another that portrayed it as unethical and a third that did not mention the subject.
The participants were asked to compare the chocolate’s calorie content to other brands. They were also asked the importance ethical considerations played in their food choices.
“The more people personally cared about the social ethics of food production, the more they show these irrational halo effects,” Schuldt said. “They are the ones more likely to think the chocolate is lower in calories just because it is fair trade.”
An article detailing the results appeared in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Schuldt noted that many of the consumers who care about the social ethics in food production tend to be more educated about food and its content.
“Yet they are likely to respond favorably when they see the fair trade label,” he said. “I think, deep down, they know the chocolate doesn’t have fewer calories because it’s ethically produced. Nevertheless, the positive impression upon hearing that the chocolate is ethically produced seems to sort of overwhelm that knowledge, leading them to show a bias even more than someone who doesn’t care about ethical production.
“At the end of the day, ethically produced chocolate is better in a lot of ways,” Schuldt said. “It just so happens one of those ways is not that is has fewer calories.”
Schuldt admitted that he has been guilty of buying fair trade chocolate himself.
“I like to think it’s not because I think it’s low in calories,” he said.
California State University, Northridge has more than 34,000 full- and part-time students and offers 66 bachelor’s and 53 master’s degrees as well as 28 teaching credential programs. Founded in 1958, CSUN is among the largest single-campus universities in the nation and the only four-year public university in the San Fernando Valley. The university is home to dozens of nationally recognized programs where students gain valuable hands-on experience working alongside faculty and industry professionals, whether in the sciences, health care and engineering or education, political science, the arts and the social sciences. While regionally focused, the university’s faculty and administrators recognize the important role its students and alumni play in shaping the future of the state and the nation.
Below is a video on Schuldt’s study: