Scared Fat

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It seems that scary stories about the foods we eat each day are becoming increasingly common in both traditional and social media channels. While the obvious end goal of the vast majority of the media is to provide the public with information that will help people choose healthy diets, a question that begs asking is if the Internet’s growing appetite for content over substance might at times be causing the public to overreact and make unhealthy food choices? According to some experts, this indeed may be the case.

Recent data shows the percentage of Americans now classified as obese has risen above 40 percent and obesity rates among children are climbing distressingly fast. The causes of obesity are multifactorial in nature, however poor diet choices are widely accepted as one cause. In this regard, it is noteworthy that despite decades of public health education information, throughout America the average daily consumption of many healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, has been reported to be stagnant or declining. The identification of barriers to increasing fruit and vegetable consumption is an area of significant research in the public health community.

According to a recent consumer research study, it seems that for some consumers, fear and concern about the safety of fruits and vegetables may be having a negative impact on purchasing decisions at the grocery store and that activist groups who call certain fruits and vegetables “dirty” may be unintentionally impeding health initiatives like the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign or the Produce for Better Health Foundation’s More Matters. If fear continues to be a consumption barrier, how will Americans ever reach the USDA’s new recommendation that half our plates be comprised of fruits and vegetables?

This important health issue was recently addressed by a group of experts in food safety, nutrition, farming and consumer behavior. This expert panel reviewed a new study conducted by the Charlton Research Group on behalf of the Alliance for Food and Farming, a non-profit group representing both conventional and organic fruit and vegetable farmers. The nationwide survey examined the potential impact of negative messages generated by activist groups that question the safety of fruits and vegetables and the impact of these messages on consumer attitudes towards buying fruits and vegetables. An analysis of this preliminary study suggests that concerns over the safety of fruits and vegetables are indeed influencing buyer behavior for some of the population. These research findings are similar to consumer research conducted previously by other organizations. The experts concluded there may be a growing public health threat caused by misinformation about food issues that people are exposed to through the media and the Internet. The panelists noted that reports focused on “potential risks” of some foods are rarely contrasted with information on the well-recognized benefits of these foods. The preliminary data presented in this report and in other ongoing studies, suggests that some consumers have decreased their intakes of fruits and vegetables out of concern that these foods may have pesticide residues. This action is clearly at odds with public health messages that increased consumption of fruits and vegetables is one way to reduce the risk for obesity. Regrettably, lack of balance in reporting on the health benefits versus risk of select foods can lead to consumer confusion and, potentially, lowering of faith in the government’s ability to set guidelines that ensure safe food.

The expert panel agreed that consumers need more information from credible sources in order to make their shopping decisions. If a report advises consumers against eating certain kinds of fruits and vegetables or recommends that consumers choose organic options to lower their hypothetical “risk” of a myriad of cognitive disorders and diseases, the media should think twice before simply repeating the message. The expert panel noted these types of statements seem to have led a large portion of the population to believe that any level of pesticide on food presents a health risk. This contention does not represent the scientific consensus and it is not supported by comprehensive scientific studies. Rather, a multitude of studies conducted for decades show a wide-range of health benefits gained by eating diets rich in fruits and vegetables regardless if the products are grown conventionally or under organic conditions. What is not controversial is that one of the best things you can do for yourself and your family is to eat more fruits and vegetables.