Fear-based messaging about food is pervasive today, and new research shows it is actually taking a toll on how people perceive food.
A study performed at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Center for Nutrition Research surveyed low-income consumers about what types of information influences their shopping decisions regarding fruits and vegetables. The results, which were published in Nutrition Today, showed that these consumers worried more about certain conventionally grown produce having higher pesticide residues than organically grown produce, making them more unlikely to purchase any fruits and vegetables at all. This comes at a time when the overall consumption of fresh produce is stagnating.
The study compliments results of previous research on food messages performed at John Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future in January of 2015. That study, published in Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment, also focused on low-income consumers and showed that claims about organic food were conflated with nutritional claims.
Here’s looking at you, Food Babe, EWG,and Only Organic.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) annually publishes a list called “The Dirty Dozen.” Despite being based on faulty science, the group claims the list contains the produce with the highest levels of pesticide residue and urges consumers to always purchase organic versions. In a similar fashion, Only Organic hosted the Organic Festival in 2015, where the organization flooded social media with messages about how superior organic produce is, in part, because it is nutritionally better and has less pesticide residues. Most of the companies and brands promoted by the marketing company usually carry similar messages. Even though these claims are untrue, we see this type of marketing scheme across the board.
In response to the research, Teresa Thorne of the Alliance for Food and Farming said:
For the benefit of consumers, especially low-income consumers, this study shows it is time for groups like EWG to rethink their strategy for promoting organics and move away from tactics intended to scare consumers from buying the more affordable and accessible produce items.
Unfortunately, these messages are hurting those that economically need to feel confident in the food they can afford to purchase. Remember the lady that went to the food pantry, only to leave without taking anything because the food was not certified non-GMO? While the marketing tactics are meant to sway those wealthy enough to have nothing else to worry about but an organic or non-GMO label, it hurts those that just need enough food to get by.
But, quite frankly, I don’t think they give a damn. It reminds me of the British socialite Vivienne Westwood. While protesting genetically modified food, a reporter suggested to her that not everyone could afford to eat organic food. Her response: “Eat less!”
We shouldn’t be surprised that fear-based marketing tactics work, especially when it comes to food. Food is a very personal decision. We share it with our families. We put it into our bodies. It’s the center of our celebrations. But that also makes it highly susceptible to corrupting messages. Honestly, who wants to feed their families inferior food products, especially if it could hurt them?
The reality is that the United States has one of the safest food supplies in the entire world. Our regulatory agencies ensure that our production methods are safe and done in a responsible manner. As a result, our food prices are affordable and allow most people (though not all) to purchase a well-balanced and healthy selection. We should feel confident that the food we purchase at the grocery store and put into our bodies is safe and nutritious.
Anyone that tries to make people, especially the low-income, believe otherwise should be ashamed.
Kelsey Pope says
Great post and thanks for including the research. I was pretty sure fear-mongering only affected those who could pay for it. Now I’m seeing that low-income people are hearing this messaging and wanting it as well. Interesting/concerning as a food producer, but it opens our eyes to how we really should be producing food. Thanks-