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.
From the New York Daily News:
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.
"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
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.