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Why the Food Industry Is Running Scared of Internet Activism

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A new study by Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, 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 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.

But of greatest concern is how the study's findings have been mischaracterized not just in the media but in Dr. Wansink's own public statements about his data.  Here's a sampling.

From the New York Daily News:

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.

From Today:

"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.  Here's why.

The Study Did Not Address Social Media At All

When study respondents were asked how they obtained information about food ingredients, they were not given any option that directly related to social media. Instead, the relevant choice was "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 contrasts the supposedly 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.  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.

Conclusions About Sharing "Food Fears" on Social Media Are Entirely Unsupported

Media reports about the study say that those with "food fears" have a higher need than others to share those fears on social media or their own blogs.  And in his video, Wansink 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," 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.  Instead they the researchers used an assessment tool that has nothing to do with social media and also asked 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 these measures remotely establish that people with food fears share those fears on social media.

Those With "Food Fears" Are Not "Haters" of Junk Food

Wansink tells us in his YouTube video that those with "food fears" "tend to hate potato chips or candy or soft drinks almost more than the ingredients themselves."  But here's what Wansink's study actually found.  Participants were asked to rate the healthfulness of four foods (yogurt, granola, pre-sweetened cereal and cookies).  Some participants were then told that these four products contained HFCS and among that subset, the "healthy" rating went down for yogurt, granola and pre-sweetened cereal, but not for cookies (presumably because cookies are not thought to be healthful in the first place).

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're so uninformed that they're misled by inaccurate online sources, yet they share this false information on social media out of a need for approval.  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 junk-food advertising to children, 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 petition victory, online petitions have become a favored tool among some food activists, as we've seen in recent news stories.

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":

Courtesy of Cornell Food and Brand Lab

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.

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A longer version of this post originally appeared on The Lunch Tray.