It’s Not All about the Science
By Aurora A. Saulo, Ph.D.,
“GMO health risks,” “The sweet lowdown: Exposing the unhealthy truth about sugar,” “Is high-fructose corn syrup bad for you?” and “Chemical cuisine. Learn about food additives”—these are the catchy titles of just some of the many articles easily obtained on the Web about the “bad” things found in our food. Many of these articles cite results of scientific studies, often not referenced and sometimes obtained from reputable scientific publications. Organizations publishing these articles, alerts and other information on food safety and health proclaim that they aim to protect consumer interests and appear to practice responsible reporting, even if only one side of the story is told. Some organizations may even have the word “science” in their names. It seems that some in the media believe in the importance of basing their story on science to project credibility. In a television interview about her book Obsessed: America’s Food Addiction—and My Own, news show host Mika Brzezinski asserted that “… we were drawn to the same things and we got that same brain reaction that science backs up. It’s an actual reward when you eat certain foods, which points to addiction.” Her statement, that she used science to arrive at her observations, was made to support her hypothesis that certain foods are addictive. This is a form of uncontrollable consumer activism on food safety and health using the media for dissemination.
For example, MSG (monosodium glutamate) is one of the most extensively researched food ingredients in the world, but it is also one of the most misunderstood. In a 1968 opinion letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, Robert Ho Man Kwok coined the term “Chinese restaurant syndrome” to describe the symptoms sometimes felt by individuals sensitive to MSG, such as palpitating of the heart, flushing of the face and swelling of the area around the lips. “MSG symptom complex” has long replaced the term, and worldwide scientific organizations, including the Joint Food and Agricultural Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, have reaffirmed its safe use for the general population at levels normally consumed as a flavor enhancer.[6, 7] The negative association, however, remains to this day.
In 2004, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in beverages became the focus of the media when a commentary stated that HFCS was a possible cause of obesity. Many more studies followed with findings establishing the same linkage, which resulted in local governments, starting in 2007, banning products containing HFCS. The continuous barrage of negative reports on HFCS was supported by other factors, including personal and moral stands against corn-processing companies viewed negatively by consumers as biotechnology-using companies.
When consumers were asked their reasons for avoiding MSG, however, they were uncertain why but still believed that MSG was bad for them. And just as with MSG, when consumers with the most negative perceptions of HFCS were interviewed in focus groups, they were unsure why they perceived HFCS as harmful and how it was different from other sweeteners. But consumers believed these reports that some foods and food ingredients were indeed harmful to their health and demanded that food manufacturers produce foods without those ingredients.
How Consumers Do Their Research on Food Safety and Health
So how do consumers with little or no scientific or technical background decide which information to consider or subscribe to in today’s technological era? Today’s consumers post online their information, experiences, insights and opinions on any topic for sharing with their social network. A proliferation of Web 2.0 applications specifically allows user-user interactions, resulting in discussions that then generate one or several collective positions on the topic to which consumers may subscribe. Knowingly or unknowingly, consumers use their family, friends and the different forms of analog and digital media as their major means of researching various information, including health and safety.
Using Electronic Media
According to their study, Eysenbach and Köhler reported that consumers judged the credibility of a website by its source, the professionalism of its design, how scientific the Web pages look, ease of navigation and the language used. Internet users did not qualify source credibility by reading the “About Us” section when they sought health information. Consumers believed negative reports more than positive ones, because they could use negative information to make decisions that would help them avoid losses. Furthermore, positive information seemed self-serving. Since the media have both audiences and shareholders to satisfy, the media tended to focus on negative reports, which have a greater impact.
When consumers have not formed attitudes toward an issue, Kumkale et al. stated that consumers used source credibility mainly to form attitudes and not to change them. Consumers also depended only on the first few links given by search engines and completed their research in slightly less than 6 minutes. The information they retrieved was then shared among friends, family and followers, who further shared with others in their own respective social networks. When transmitted to others, the reports sometimes stayed the same, were repeated out of context or sometimes embellished with sensational details, resulting in urban legends, modern folklore, Internet hoaxes or myths. This rapid communication fuels consumer activism. Although consumers prefer the use of Web 2.0 applications (like Facebook), there is a concern for the quality of the information coming from this practice or discussions of groups of lay users.
When consumers have formed attitudes toward an issue, they generally look for information that agrees with their beliefs. This is especially true with their perception of biotechnology-enhanced foods. Those beliefs remained stable even in the presence of persuasive arguments. Giving factual or scientific statements to consumers isn’t enough to allay their concerns. Consumers consider “The U.S. has the safest foods in the world” a weak explanation of the safety of advanced technologies that they fear or do not understand well. Consumers perceive the opposite beliefs conveying positive information as inaccurate and more biased.
Using Traditional Media
Traditional media remain sources of information for the consumer. For example, Blue stated that many obtain their knowledge of farming from the media, marketing efforts and advertisements and stories, but not from farmers. Many consumers don’t know what is involved in growing the food they buy in supermarkets. They don’t know the real differences in organic and conventional farming, pests that harm agriculture and the methods employed by farmers to get rid of them, the heat treatment (pasteurization) of milk to make it safe, or generally, the hazards that are always present in our food.
The Media Determines the Agenda
Through the information obtained from the media, consumers form their own beliefs and values, influencing their political, social, economical and behavioral tendencies. Thus, consumers may demand produce with no pesticides, or raw milk and no bioengineered foods. The media helped consumers form these beliefs. An extension of these beliefs is the expectation that all foods we eat must be absolutely safe.
The media also helped decide for consumers what safety characteristics are important in the food they eat. For example, between 1993 and 1998 and 2006 and 2010, the media increased its coverage of food safety, thus deciding that food safety was important. In this case, increased media coverage of food hazards raised awareness of the hazards during the same periods of the coverage and increased vigilance in food-handling practices in the home.
It was a different situation in 2008, when tomatoes in fresh salsa were initially blamed for a multistate salmonellosis outbreak that was later confirmed as due to uncooked jalapeño peppers. This premature media reporting of tomatoes as the source of contamination resulted in financial losses of approximately $450 million to both the tomato and pepper industries. The same was true for the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) coverage in 1996 when, according to Texas beef farmers, Oprah Winfrey’s statement that she would stop eating hamburger caused a steep decline in beef prices, although the U.S. did not have a single case of BSE. The information released by the media was based on emotions, and consumers were emotional in their reactions.
Demand, Price, Services
Extensive product coverage affects consumer perceptions and can influence demand and price for the product and services related to it. Particularly vulnerable to such marketing methods are adolescents[23, 24] and 3- to 5-year-olds who cannot differentiate between commercials and reality, and whose identities are defined by their consumer habits. These young consumers watch advertisements and visit websites of food and beverage brands that offer games and product discounts, feature shows attractive to them and urge these young viewers to ask their parents to buy those products. Such media coverage is intentionally dramatic and sensational to grab the attention of the young viewers. The media effectively influenced the attitudes of these young consumers.
Snacks—The Cause and Cure of Obesity
However, the media also supports two strong and opposing attitudes. In its policy statement published by the media, The American Academy of Pediatrics Council of Communication and Media defined “snacking behavior” as an undesirable eating pattern that contributes to obesity. The academy defined snacks as foods eaten mindlessly, such as during TV viewing, and that it claims have the same deleterious impact as fast foods have on health. The academy concluded that the “media clearly play an important role in the current epidemic of childhood and adolescent obesity” through increased screen time of “unhealthy eating practices” that are then emulated by these young consumers and supported its policy statement with a voluminous amount of scientific studies.
On the other hand, a forward-thinking marketing group has been presenting healthy snacking as a possible solution to obesity. The Hartman Group contends that snacking as traditionally defined has changed in the past 20 years. Americans are snacking more than they are eating meals. They have a changed eating behavior and snack foods are no longer just sweet and salty. Although still less so than meals, snack foods have evolved to include fresh foods of higher quality. Instead of demonizing snacks, The Hartman Group encourages embracing “our cultural love of snacking” and promoting snacking as small portions of “a memorable social experience” that may help curb obesity. The media is being used to modify consumer snacking behavior from “unhealthy” to “healthy.” These are examples of the use of the media that influences the eating behavior of the American public in very different ways.
The Consumer and Food Manufacturers
American consumers are some of the most affluent consumers in the world. There are many good-tasting and healthful foods that are economically available to them. Most food products resulted from the innovative application of food science methods and techniques consumers now publicly disown. Americans are some of the very few in the world who have the luxury to pick and choose foods according to the personal criteria they used to form their attitudes. Information obtained from the media, such as the absolute safety of foods, formed some of those attitudes. The criteria they use may not be always based on sound science, but they are what consumers believe and seek in the market. Since food manufacturers must meet consumer demands, they develop and prepare such products—“GMO-free,” “no artificial colors,” “no MSG,” “fresh, organic, not processed” and “all natural, no additives.” The demand for foods with clean labels, that is, devoid of “chemicals,” continues even when those ingredients may enhance safety, prolong shelf life or increase palatability.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Consumers form their attitudes on health and safety based on information given to them by the media. This information shapes their beliefs and values. Their emotions, educational background and social network further influence attitudes beyond media input. These factors reinforce each other. As a result, much consumer information is not based on sound science but is rather an amalgamation of what consumers read, think, see, believe and feel. And of course, the attitudes they form are a lot about who they are to begin with.
Sometimes the science is good, and we scientists are satisfied with the resulting consumer attitudes. Sometimes the science is bad and the objective is wrong, but when written or presented by a popularizer, the topic becomes fascinating to the masses and is carefully read. Most of the time, the science is good but is not read.
Where do we go from here? Are we headed toward a world without science? Where celebrities and politicians shape our minds with messages of the terrors of genetic manipulation resulting in weird foods? Where processed foods and food additives are evil and cause obesity, addiction and learning disabilities? A world without science but with messages that make sense and are relevant to consumers?
Or will we have a world without emotions? Where dull, white-garbed scientists end up forming our attitudes? Where their messages are true, factual and science-based but make no sense and can’t be understood? Where scientists want us to care about their messages without showing that they care about us first?
Or is it possible to have a happy compromise? Where food manufacturers always have our health and safety in mind? Where we can be wary of technologies we can’t understand but still believe in the ultimate benefits of science? Where we have scientists who use words we can understand and ways that are relevant? After all, it’s not all about the science.
Aurora A. Saulo, Ph.D., is professor of and the extension specialist in food technology of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
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