Study Shows Conflicting Statements on Healthy Eating May Be Impacting Low Income Consumers
Health and Wellness
March 12, 2015
by guest columnist Marilyn Dolan, Executive Director, Alliance for Food and Farming
For the last five years, the Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF) has been stating that the constant barrage of misinformation regarding produce safety may be having a detrimental effect on the diets of consumers and efforts to increase consumption of fruits and veggies. Now, a new peer reviewed study may indicate that concern was well founded. Researchers from the John Hopkins School for a Livable Future found that conflicting messaging on food safety and nutrition may be confusing consumers which could result in a defeatist attitude regarding healthy eating.
The study focused on low-income consumers and was published in the journal Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment and titled, “’They Just Say Organic Food Is Healthier: Perceptions of Healthy Food Among Supermarket Shoppers in Southwest Baltimore.”
The researchers conducted one-on-one interviews with study participates to learn more about the way organic food is understood within consumers’ definitions of healthy food. The researchers stated that they explored this topic among consumers living in an underserved, low-income neighborhood because “this group is particularly important demographically given the disparate burden of diet-related diseases they carry and the frequency of diet-related messages they receive.”
Specific to produce and pesticide residues, the researchers included the following excerpt in their paper:
Some participants acknowledged that they hear competing health messages about foods, in which attributes of organic might conflict with other health benefits of the food, such as nutritional value. One participant described health messages about the importance of eating apples being contradicted by other messages warning of the effects of pesticides.
“… And I know the organic food, like I said, don’t have pesticides in it, I think. And I don’t know. They advertised something on TV, like an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But then last week they advertised on TV the most unsuspecting foods you would think would be dangerous to you because of the levels of pesticides in it. Apples was the third one.” [P18, 35-year-old female]
Among the John Hopkins study conclusions:
- Whether a consumer incorrectly perceives organic foods to have fewer calories, or whether they give organic more importance than nutrition, they may compromise nutrition in their decision to go organic.
- Study participants perceived that steroids, cloning, chemicals, and “stuff they spray on the vegetables and on the fruit” were directly responsible for negatively impacting consumers physically.
- The issue of organic can swamp or compete with other messages about nutrition, as evidenced by the data presented here. Perceiving that there is an overwhelming amount of sometimes contradictory information about healthy eating could make some consumers defeatist about trying to eat healthily. Given the potential implications of competing messages about healthy eating, it is important that those who want to improve food production techniques and those who want to improve nutrition cooperate to create consistent messaging about healthy eating.
Study participants also cited higher costs and a limited selection of organic foods as barriers to purchasing and consumption.
In 2012, the AFF conducted its own consumer survey to gauge how negative, misleading statements about produce safety may be impacting consumers. We then had the survey results examined by an academic panel. The findings were similar to what the John Hopkins researchers were seeing. In the AFF research, when presented with negative safety messages about produce taken from media reports, almost 20% of low income consumers either stated they would eat less or they were confused about what they should eat.
Among the conclusions of the academic panel that reviewed the AFF survey results:
- We have an obesity epidemic and current media and internet reporting is increasing fears consumers have about eating fruits and vegetables and is lowering the faith people have in the government regulations implemented to protect them.
- It is inaccurate to suggest that organic is the only safe choice when it comes to selecting safe fruits and vegetables; because there is no scientific consensus to substantiate this claim.
Although there are many groups that disparage the safety of conventionally grown produce, the main culprit is the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Not only is EWG chiefly responsible for generating misinformation and fears about produce safety, they are also leaders in presenting conflicting information to consumers leading to the type of confusion about healthy eating cited in the John Hopkins study.
Case in point: In April 2014, EWG released their annual “dirty dozen” list which characterized popular produce items as “toxic laden” and “contaminated” and urged consumers to choose organic versions of the fruits and veggies on the list. In October 2014, EWG released a new “Food Scores” database where they stated that these same popular, conventional produce items are “best” foods accompanied by a very strong statement urging consumers to eat more each day for better health. Can you imagine seeking out dietary advice and being told one day to avoid conventionally grown produce and the next you’re told conventional fruits and veggies are a “best” food that you should eat more of? A little confusing to say the least.
We have repeatedly asked groups, like EWG, to examine their messaging which unfairly disparages conventional produce, which is the more accessible and affordable choice for most Americans. Further, the body of science clearly shows conventional fruits and veggies are very safe as well as nutritious and healthy. Even EWG states that conventional produce is safe to eat.
But in light of this new study, we must renew that “ask” of these groups. We hope that they will review this new peer reviewed study and consider following the findings of the researchers to “create consistent messaging” for the benefit of all consumers, especially those with lower incomes who may not be able to afford or have access to organic foods. And, that message is really quite simple: “Eat more organic and conventional produce every day for better health and a longer life.”
The Alliance for Food and Farming is a non-profit organization formed in 1989, which represents organic and conventional farmers and farms of all sizes. Alliance contributors are limited to farmers of fruits and vegetables, companies that sell, market or ship fruits and vegetables or organizations that represent produce farmers. Our mission is to deliver credible information to consumers about the safety of fruits and vegetables. The Alliance does not engage in any lobbying activities, nor do we accept any money or support from the pesticide industry.