Why the Food Industry Is Running Scared of Internet Activism

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 take to heart the one simple lesson to be gleaned from the many recent successes in Internet food activism: Consumers want transparency.
07/10/2014 11:11 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A new study byᅡᅠDr. Brian Wansink, a professor of consumerᅡᅠbehavior at Cornell University and director of theᅡᅠCornell Food and Brand Lab, seeks to determine whyᅡᅠpeople -- mothersᅡᅠin particular --ᅡᅠdevelop so-calledᅡᅠ"food fears" about certain ingredients (such asᅡᅠsodium, 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" canᅡᅠbeᅡᅠaddressed by "providing information regarding an ingredient's history or the other products in which it is used," is hardly controversial. ᅡᅠBut some other things about this study raise red flags,ᅡᅠstarting with the fact that what might beᅡᅠentirely legitimate concerns about particular ingredients are uniformly (and patronizingly) characterized as "food fears,"ᅡᅠand that the study was funded inᅡᅠpart by theᅡᅠCorn Refiners Association, the trade group representing manufacturers of the very "food fear" examined, i.e., concernsᅡᅠabout 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. ᅡᅠHere's a sampling.

Fear of food containing controversial ingredients may be fueled by Facebook.ᅡᅠA new studyᅡᅠsuggests 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.

FromᅡᅠToday:

"Soy causes cancer." "Gluten may lead to autism." "There'sᅡᅠyoga mat material in your sandwich!" "Sugar feeds cancer!"

Are your Facebook friends making you afraid to eat? New research in the journalᅡᅠFood Quality and Preferenceᅡᅠidentifies 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]ᅡᅠadds. "It ends up unnecessarily causing fear or causes some sort of nervousness."

And inᅡᅠWansink's ownᅡᅠYouTube videoᅡᅠcreated to promote the study, he tells us that peopleᅡᅠwith "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 theyᅡᅠtend to hate potatoᅡᅠchips or candy or soft drinks almost more than theᅡᅠingredients 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 mainstreamᅡᅠmedia and theyᅡᅠcertainly 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,ᅡᅠWansink's study simply does not supportᅡᅠthese characterizations of individuals who get their food information fromᅡᅠthe Internet. ᅡᅠHere's why.

The Study Did Not Address Social Media At All

Whenᅡᅠstudy respondents were asked how theyᅡᅠobtained 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 anythingᅡᅠfrom the sketchiest of blogs to the website of the Institute of Medicine. So, in fact, the study has nothing at all to sayᅡᅠabout the role of Facebook, Twitter or other social media per se in stoking "food fears."

The StudyᅡᅠFailed to Distinguish Between Types of Online Mediaᅡᅠ

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 itsᅡᅠownᅡᅠwebsite. ᅡᅠSo when Wansink says in his video that people with "food fears" "look at their favorite websites, they don't get [food news]ᅡᅠfrom mainstreamᅡᅠmedia," he has no basis at all on which to make this key distinction. ᅡᅠYes, this subset of respondents may turn toᅡᅠthe 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 theᅡᅠstudy say that thoseᅡᅠwith "food fears" have a higher need than others to share those fears on social media or their own blogs. ᅡᅠAnd inᅡᅠhis video, Wansinkᅡᅠsays suchᅡᅠpeople "areᅡᅠmuch more likelyᅡᅠto need social approval." (Emphasis mine.)ᅡᅠ

Butᅡᅠwhile the studyᅡᅠdid 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 effectsᅡᅠwere small in our sample." ᅡᅠSo Wansink's "much more likely" characterization is patently false. ᅡᅠAnd even if this finding were significant, the supposed need for social approval wasᅡᅠnotᅡᅠmeasured by respondents'ᅡᅠuse of social media or blogs. ᅡᅠInstead they the researchers used anᅡᅠassessmentᅡᅠtoolᅡᅠthat has nothing to do withᅡᅠsocial 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" andᅡᅠ"It is important to me that my friends know that I buy Natural Foods and Beverages"). ᅡᅠNeither of these measures remotely establishᅡᅠthat people with food fears share those fearsᅡᅠon 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 potatoᅡᅠchips or candy or soft drinks almost more than theᅡᅠingredients themselves." ᅡᅠBut here's what Wansink's study actually found. ᅡᅠParticipants were asked to rate the healthfulness of four foods (yogurt, granola, pre-sweetened cereal and cookies). ᅡᅠSome participants were then told that these four products contained HFCSᅡᅠand 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. ᅡᅠNot a word in the study about "potato chips, candy or soft drinks." ᅡᅠNot a word about "hating." ᅡᅠBut 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 troublingᅡᅠlack of scientific support, Wansink seems intent on using his study to paint an unflattering portrait of those who obtain information about food ingredients online. ᅡᅠThese momsᅡᅠare militant "haters" ofᅡᅠsoda, candy and chips. They're so uninformed that they're misled byᅡᅠinaccurateᅡᅠonline sources, yet they share this falseᅡᅠinformation on social mediaᅡᅠout of a need for approval. ᅡᅠWansink is equally critical of theᅡᅠInternet itself, goingᅡᅠso far as to say in his promotional video that "Reading about food ingredients on the Web. ᅡᅠIt's one of theᅡᅠworst things you can doᅡᅠif you want the facts..." (Emphasis mine.)

WhyᅡᅠdoesᅡᅠWansink seem so intent on demonizing the Internet and social media and thoseᅡᅠwho rely onᅡᅠthose outletsᅡᅠfor food information? ᅡᅠIn 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 areᅡᅠextremely powerful tools for advancing various food-related causes, from aiding grassroots activism, to spreading viral videosᅡᅠpromoting sustainable food practicesᅡᅠorᅡᅠdecrying junk-food advertising to children,ᅡᅠto making possible online petitions likeᅡᅠthe one I started in 2012, which garnered a quarter of a million signatures and within nine days ledᅡᅠthe USDA to change one of its school food policies. ᅡᅠIndeed, 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 aᅡᅠreturn 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. ᅡᅠIf 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")ᅡᅠand the medium (seeking food information on the Internet is "the worst thing you can do"). ᅡᅠIt 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. ᅡᅠSo insteadᅡᅠof commissioning studies thatᅡᅠdemonize the Internet, social media and/or "moms with food fears,"ᅡᅠfood companies shouldᅡᅠpocket that money and insteadᅡᅠtake to heart theᅡᅠone simpleᅡᅠlesson to be gleaned fromᅡᅠthe many recent successes in Internet food activism:

Consumers want transparency.

Ifᅡᅠa food corporation is currently engaging in any practice or using any ingredient which would not survive public opinion should it ever come to light,ᅡᅠthat company is taking a serious public relations risk in this new Internet age.

And that, in my view, isᅡᅠtheᅡᅠrealᅡᅠ"food fear" lurking behind Wansink's latest study.

_____

A longer version of thisᅡᅠpost originally appeared on The Lunch Tray.