New Study: Fears About Produce Safety May Negatively Impact Low Income Consumers

9/30/2016 11:09 AM

New peer reviewed research published in Nutrition Today shows that fear-based messaging intended to invoke safety concerns about non-organic produce may be having a negative impact on consumption of organic and conventional fruits and veggies among low income consumers.

Researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) Center for Nutrition Research surveyed low income consumers to learn more about what terms and information about fruits and vegetables may influence their shopping intentions.  Among the key findings, misleading messaging which inaccurately describes certain fruits and vegetables as having “higher” pesticide residues results in low income shoppers reporting that they would be unlikely to purchase any fruits and vegetables – organic or conventional. 

This is the main message of the “dirty dozen” list published annually by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).  For over 20 years, EWG has used this “list” to promote the purchase of organic produce over conventional by making unscientific, unsubstantiated claims about pesticide residues.  But, the IIT study shows EWG’s tactic to promote organic produce is seriously backfiring since organic is also being negatively impacted by its very own “dirty dozen” messaging. 

And, this is not the first study that has shown this result.  A peer reviewed study by John Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future published in January 2015 in the journal Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment focused on learning more about the way organic food is understood within low income consumers’ definitions of healthy food.  This study also found conflicting health and safety messages, including those about pesticide residues, were having a negative impact on consumers.  Among their findings: “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.”

These findings are what we’ve been afraid of and why the Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF) has been so persistent and passionate (some might even say aggressive) in our efforts to stop groups from inaccurately disparaging conventionally grown produce.  However, the IIT findings were actually worse than expected because the messaging showed low income consumers were pushed to abandoning eating any fruits and vegetables after exposure to EWG messaging. 

Interestingly, one of EWG’s stated objectives is to “encourage consumers to adopt diets that improves public health.”  Both the John Hopkins and IIT studies show that the “dirty dozen” list achieves the exact opposite of this stated objective – it discourages eating the very foods health experts agree we should all be consuming more of every day. 

Another EWG objective:  We follow facts and evidence – wherever they lead – in search of truth in science, the environment and health.  If EWG is sincere about following the facts “wherever they lead,” then they would adopt this message. “Eat more organic and conventionally grown produce every day for better health and a longer life.  Both are safe and can be consumed with confidence.”   The overwhelming facts, studies, science and evidence also strongly support EWG finally retiring the “dirty dozen” list. 

Read, learn, choose but eat more organic and conventional produce every day.

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