Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, has published a new study in the journal Food Quality and Preference entitled “Ingredient-Based Food Fears and Avoidance: Antecedents and Antidotes.” This study, co-authored by Aner Tal and Adam Brumberg, seeks to determine why people – mothers in particular – develop so-called “food fears” about certain ingredients (such as sodium, fat, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, MSG and lean finely textured beef) and what the food industry and government can do about it.
The study’s ultimate conclusion, that “food fears” can be addressed by “providing information regarding an ingredient’s history or the other products in which it is used,” is hardly controversial. But some other things about this study raise red flags, starting with the fact that what might be entirely legitimate concerns about particular ingredients are uniformly (and patronizingly) characterized as “food fears,” and that the study’s findings have been overblown and mischaracterized not just in the media but in Dr. Wansink’s own public statements about his data.
I haven’t yet mentioned the fact that the study was funded in part by the Corn Refiners Association, the trade group representing manufacturers of the very “food fear” examined, i.e., concerns about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). While the study never takes a position on whether that particular “food fear” is legitimate (and, by the way, I’m totally agnostic on the HFCS vs. sugar question), Wansink’s own statements in the media would certainly be reassuring to anyone worried about HFCS — and that alone is troubling given the CRA’s financial ties to the study. Here’s Wansink speaking to Today:
“We’ve been looking at a lot of these food misconceptions,” says food psychologist Brian Wansink, the John S. Dyson Professor or Marketing at Cornell University. “It’s kind of crazy. How do these things get started and get traction without really any evidence at all?”
But putting aside CRA’s involvement, I’m far more troubled by Wansink’s and the media’s characterization of the study’s findings. Here’s the New York Daily News‘ take on the study:
“Fear of food containing controversial ingredients may be fueled by Facebook. A new study suggests that people who avoid additives like MSG, sodium benzoate and pink slime get most of their information from what they see on social media sites and elsewhere on the Internet.”
And here’s Today‘s summary:
“Soy causes cancer.” “Gluten may lead to autism.” “There’s yoga mat material in your sandwich!” “Sugar feeds cancer!”
Are your Facebook friends making you afraid to eat? New research in the journal Food Quality and Preference identifies who fears food the most —and it’s probably those of us most addicted to social media.
In other words, the more we share, the more we scare.
People who feared food the most were better educated, but find most of their food facts from Facebook newsfeeds, Twitter, blogs, or friends.
In addition to suffering from misconceptions about food, they also feel strongly about sharing these opinions on social media or their own blogs.
“Compared to the general population, they have a higher need to tell other people about their opinion,” [Wansink] adds. “It ends up unnecessarily causing fear or causes some sort of nervousness.”
And in Wansink’s own YouTube video created to promote the study, he tells us that people with “really bad ingredient food fears have three things in common:”
First of all, they tend to hate the foods the product’s in, almost more than the [unintelligible] ingredient itself, meaning they tend to hate potato chips or candy or soft drinks almost more than the ingredients themselves.
Second of all, they get most of their information . . . from the Internet, they look at their favorite websites, they don’t get it from mainstream media and they certainly don’t get it from health care professionals.
The third thing they have in common is that they are much more likely to need social approval.
The problem is, Wansink’s study simply does not support these characterizations of individuals who get their food information from the Internet, and Wansink’s own recap of his study is in some ways as grossly inaccurate as the media reports I cite. Here’s why.
The Study Did Not Address Social Media At All
In a survey of 1,008 women who had two or more children, the question posed to respondents about where they obtained information about food ingredients did not include the words “Facebook,” “Twitter,” “newsfeed” or even the more general term “social media.” Instead, respondents were simply asked if they obtained such information from “Internet/Online,” an incredibly broad descriptor which could include anything from the sketchiest of blogs to the website of the Institute of Medicine.
So, in fact, the study has nothing at all to say about the role of Facebook, Twitter or other social media per se in stoking “food fears.”
The Study Failed to Distinguish Between Types of Online Media
Wansink also contrasts what he sees as the largely biased Internet with more trustworthy “mainstream media,” but without acknowledging that almost every local and national news outlet operating in traditional media now also has its own website. (In fact, where did I find Wansink’s own study, the news coverage about it, and every other citation in this post? Online, of course.) Moreover, in this era of ever-growing media segmentation along ideological lines, just because a news source is considered “mainstream” hardly rules out the possibility of political and other biases in its reporting on food-related issues.
So when Wansink says in his video that people with “food fears” “look at their favorite websites, they don’t get [food news] from mainstream media,” he has no basis at all on which to make this key distinction. Yes, this subset of respondents may turn to the Internet for food news more than they turn to newspapers or television, but once they’re on the Internet we have absolutely no idea if they’re reading the New York Times or the website of an uninformed blogger.
And, by the way, the Pew Research Internet Project finds that Internet use goes up in direct correlation with one’s level of education, which runs counter to the clear implication that only the less informed or less sophisticated person would choose the Internet over more traditional news sources for their food news.
Conclusions About Sharing “Food Fears” on Social Media Are Entirely Unsupported
As noted, Today reports that moms with “food fears” “feel strongly about sharing these opinions on social media or their own blogs,” and Wansink notes that “they have a higher need to tell other people about their opinion.” In his video, he says such people “are much more likely to need social approval.” (Emphasis mine.)
But while the study did find that “some individuals who avoid ingredients may have a greater need for social approval among their reference group than those with a more moderate view,” the study’s authors were forced to admit that “such effects were small in our sample.” So Wansink’s “much more likely” characterization is patently false.
And even if this finding were significant, the supposed need for social approval was not measured by respondents’ use of social media or blogs. Rather, it was measured using a standard “social desirability” assessment tool that has nothing to do with social media, and also by asking respondents if they agreed with two statements (“It is important to me that my friends know that I buy Organic Foods and Beverages” and “It is important to me that my friends know that I buy Natural Foods and Beverages”), neither of which have anything to do with “food fears” or social media.
So the study did not in any way establish one of the main “hooks” we’re now seeing in news coverage, i.e., that people with “food fears” feel compelled to share these fears with others on Facebook and Twitter.
Those With “Food Fears” Are Not “Haters” of Junk Food
Wansink tells us in his YouTube video that those with “food fears” actually “hate” the product in which the feared ingredient is found more than the ingredient itself. Specifically, he tells us, the study found that they “tend to hate potato chips or candy or soft drinks almost more than the ingredients themselves.”
And that’s it. Not a word in the study about “potato chips, candy or soft drinks.” Not a word about “hating.” But Wansink apparently likes this fictional finding so much he mentions it in his video not once, but twice.
What’s Really Going On Here?
Despite a troubling lack of scientific support, Wansink seems intent on using his study to paint an unflattering portrait of those who obtain information about food ingredients online. These moms are militant “haters” of soda, candy and chips, they are so uninformed that they can be misled by inaccurate online sources, yet they share this false information on social media out of a need to increase their social currency. Wansink is equally critical of the Internet itself, going so far as to say in his promotional video that “Reading about food ingredients on the Web. It’s one of the worst things you can do if you want the facts. . . ” (Emphasis mine.)
Why does Wansink seem so intent on demonizing the Internet and social media and those who rely on those outlets for food information? In the end, who benefits from these characterizations?
To the great consternation of the processed food industry, it is becoming ever more apparent that the Internet and social media are extremely powerful tools for advancing various food-related causes, from aiding grassroots activism, to spreading viral videos promoting sustainable food practices or decrying children’s junk food advertising, to making possible online petitions like the one I started in 2012, which garnered a quarter of a million signatures and within nine days led the USDA to change one of its school food policies.
Indeed, since my 2012 Change.org victory, online petitions in particular have become a favored tool among some food activists and, in my observation, petitions which narrowly target a specific food ingredient (what Wansink would no doubt refer to as creating a “food fear”) are far more likely to succeed. That’s because a broadly ambitious but nebulously stated goal (“Corporations: stop putting questionable chemicals in our food!”) will not cause any one company to feel pressured into action, but a highly specific demand targeted at a single entity (“PepsiCo: remove BVO from Gatorade!” or “Kraft: remove artificial yellow food dye from mac-n-cheese!”) effectively puts one company in an uncomfortable hot seat — and offers the company a clear path to acceding to the petitioner’s request if it so chooses.
I accept the criticism leveled at narrowly crafted petitions (including my own in 2012) that, if successful, they can claim only very marginal victories. But until the food industry loses its current hold over our elected officials, making possible more sweeping changes to our food system, I do believe that even a narrowly focused food petition can have a salutary ripple effect.
When we hear that Gatorade and Kraft mac n’ cheese contain ingredients that are banned in other countries, we start asking questions about FDA’s approval process for food additives. When we learn that slaughterhouse scraps must be treated with ammonium hydroxide to make them fit for human consumption, we start wondering why so many pathogens are on the meat in the first place, raising still larger issues about today’s methods of industrial meat production. Each time a single-ingredient food petition is launched, it lifts the curtain on one small aspect of the American food supply and many people, including those in the media, start asking more pointed questions about what exactly is in our food and how it is made.
The food industry would no doubt prefer a return to the days when it alone controlled the narrative about food ingredients and food processing. Now, though, for better or worse, anyone with a computer can write a blog post, post a video or start an online petition about a food-related issue. If I ran a food company these days, I’m sure I would be lying awake at night, worried that the next Internet food campaign could have one of my own products in its sights.
So what better way to combat this growing threat than to delegitimize both the message (concerns about ingredients are “crazy” “food fears”) and the medium (seeking food information on the Internet is “the worst thing you can do.”) It doesn’t hurt to also create an unflattering cartoon of the message’s recipient, the hapless, freaked out “mom:”
But unfortunately for food companies, the Internet genie is out of the bottle and there’s no turning back. So instead of commissioning studies that demonize the Internet, social media and/or “moms with food fears,” food companies should pocket that money and instead take to heart the one simple lesson to be gleaned from the many recent successes in Internet food activism:
CONSUMERS WANT TRANSPARENCY.
If a food corporation is currently engaging in any practice or using any ingredient which would not survive public opinion should it ever come to light, that company is taking a serious public relations risk in this new Internet age.
And that, in my view, is the real “food fear” lurking behind Wansink’s latest study.*
* This is not the first time a Wansink study’s findings have been overblown in ways which arguably aid the study’s sponsor. My school-food-blogging colleague Stacy Whitman offered an excellent critique of a widely publicized Wansink study claiming that school chocolate milk bans, which are supported by many childhood obesity experts but opposed by the dairy industry, are likely to “backfire.” In addition to refuting several aspects of the study on its own merits, Whitman pointed out that the study had been sponsored by the USDA, which promotes dairy consumption and has ties to MilkPEP, a well-funded milk processors’ marketing group. This photo of Wansink, also shared by Whitman in her post, did nothing to alleviate concerns about a possible pro-dairy bias in the presentation of the study’s data.
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