We talk a good game about eating better - avoiding Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and pesticides, buying organic and local, insisting on cruelty free eggs and chickens and milk. But do we follow through?
Doubts are raised in a study led by Rutgers professor William Hallman, chairman of the human ecology department. We loudly say, for instance, that we want to avoid GMOs in food. In fact, over 80% of us say exactly that when we are directly asked. But ask us what we want on a food label - without offering suggestions - and only 7% say GMO info, according to the Rutgers study. One interpretation of that spread is that really it isn’t top of mind. Not even close.
Maybe we are just saying some things, because, well, they seem to be the right thing to say.
The Rutgers study also found that about half of us never, rarely or sometimes look at food labels. 45.6% of us “always” or “frequently” look.
The half that do not look can't make much of a claim about wanting to eat better.
Ask us specific questions - e.g. Do you care about pesticides or GMOs? - and we are all over “yes.” Ask us broad, vague questions - e.g. What would we like to see on food labels? - and our minds go numb, according to the Rutgers study. Just 1.3% of us say we want to know about pesticides, for instance, when it’s on us to say specifically what we want. Just 6.4% said they want info on where the food was grown or produced. Only 1.1% said they want to know if a product is organic.
Ask us directly: Do you want to know if a product is organic? Of course, over two-thirds said yes.
Are we hypocrites? And - more importantly - are we actually eating what we say is important?
Washington Post food writer Tamar Haspel in a recent column, put a bow on this: “The moral of this story is that it’s easy to make it look like people care a whole lot more than they do. Where does that leave us? How many people really do care? Is there even such a thing as a food movement?”
Canvass multiple sources and the verdict is plain: we do care. Kind of. Assuming other things do not get in the way. We mean to purchase the good stuff. Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t.
“There are a host of factors that get in the way of good intentions when it comes to actual purchases," said Jeffery Born, professor of finance at the D'Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University in Boston and a self-acknowledged food sinner. "First, these items tend to cost more - sometimes a lot more. Second, there are many poor and urban areas where it is difficult to find fresh and/or organic items at any price. Third, even in affluent suburban areas these choices are still a small percentage of items available, unless one goes to a specialty retailer (e.g. Trader Joe's, Whole Foods) which might not carry all the items that the shopper wants to purchase while at the grocery.”
Alexander Gillett, CEO of Brooklyn based food research and rating company HowGood, said we need to cut consumers some slack. “It’s daunting for a consumer to know all the facts," he said. "People zone out especially to what’s on the packaging. They don’t know if they can trust it. People want to support best practices - but they do not always know how and they do not want to be a dupe.”
Rob Volpe, CEO of Ignite 360, a consumer insights and strategy firm in San Francisco, offered a succinct summing up of why our good intentions aren’t matched by actions. "People know what's right for them, what they should and shouldn't be eating, but there are always practical realities that get in the way," he said. "Money is one. The wallet can only stretch so far to hold all those organic, non-GMO, pesticide free foods. The other is the irresistible power of taste. I've talked to some of the most health oriented consumers about buying local, fresh, all the buzz words. And you can still find [them eating] some combination of Oreos, Doritos or Cheez-Its. When you ask why, the answer is simply, ‘It just tastes good.’”