From GMOs to BPA, why are the wealthy more likely to fall for food pseudoscience?

Socioeconomics play a significant role in attitudes about food – especially concerns about safety and purchasing behavior. And higher income doesn’t always correlate with informed choices. On the contrary, our research shows that affluent Americans tend to overestimate their knowledge about health and nutrition.

A Food Literacy and Engagement Poll from Michigan State University’s [email protected] initiative reveals that nearly half of Americans (49 percent) in households earning at least US$50,000 annually believe they know more than the average person about global food systems, while just 28 percent of those earning less are as confident. However, when we surveyed people on a variety of food topics, affluent respondents fared no better, and at times worse, than their lower-earning peers.

We sampled over 2,000 Americans age 18 and over online. Results were weighted to reflect U.S. census demographics for age, sex, race and ethnicity, education, region and household income to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population.

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Many foods carry non-GMO labels, but experts debate whether these tags are meaningful. (Image credit: The Impulsive Buy)

Access to information – and misinformation

In our survey, we asked people whether they avoid products containing “chemicals” when purchasing groceries, without further defining the term. Seventy-three percent of respondents with high incomes said yes, compared to 65 percent of people living in lower-income households. Chemicals tend to be demonized in popular culture, but they are fundamental to the ways we see, hear, smell and interpret the world.

We suspect that many Americans confuse the general term “chemicals” with pesticides or food additives, such as artificial flavors and colors, because these ingredients often make the news when they are shown to be harmful. But broadly, chemicals are what make up humans and our food. This example highlights the vast disconnect that we have found between science, food and the public broadly, and also suggests that wealthy Americans are not more informed than their less affluent peers.

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Our new poll data also adds to a growing body of literature demonstrating how socioeconomic factors influence access to information about health, safety and nutrition.

For example, just 59 percent of lower-earning Americans recognized the term “Bisphenol A (BPA),” an industrial chemical in some plastics and resins that can seep into food and beverages. In contrast, 80 percent of wealthier consumers were familiar with it.

Related article:  Silent majority? Most Americans may embrace biotech, but vocal anti-GMO minority dominates the conversation

Similarly, 85 percent of lower-income respondents were familiar with the term “genetically modified ingredients (GMOs)” compared to 93 percent of higher earners. Although BPA and GMOs are two very distinct topics, both are hotly debated in policy discussions and it appears that lower earning Americans are disproportionately being left out of the conversation.

We also observed that even though higher earners have more access to information about food, they are also more likely to be influenced by misinformation and pseudoscience.

For example, a comprehensive 2016 study by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that genetically engineered crops are just as safe to eat as their non-genetically engineered counterparts. Yet in our survey, 43 percent of those with high incomes and 26 percent of lower earners reported that they avoid purchasing them.

We suspect affluent Americans are more likely to encounter unsubstantiated information – online, among friends and family, and at farmers’ markets and pricier upscale grocery stores – that raise unfounded concerns about this widely used technology.

The result is a persistent perception that certain “organic” or non-GMO products are somehow healthier, which is unsupported by research. This attitude puts pressure on some consumers to pay more for produce with these labels or suffer from feelings of guilt or shame if they cannot afford to provide pricier items for their families.

Our findings reveal that household income has a significant influence on access to information and shapes attitudes about diet and nutrition, although higher income does not consistently correlate with better understanding. We believe they show the need for food experts and health professionals to work with social scientists to understand ways in which different communities make decisions about food.

Sheril Kirshenbaum is an associate research scientist at Michigan State University. Follow her on Twitter @Sheril. Douglas Buhler is the Director of AgBioResearch and Assistant Vice President of Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University.

This article was originally published at the Conversation as “Wealthy Americans know less than they think they do about food and nutrition” and has been republished here with permission.

21 thoughts on “From GMOs to BPA, why are the wealthy more likely to fall for food pseudoscience?”

  1. …37 percent of respondents thought that non-GMO food has no genes.

    You don’t even need to know a thing about transgenics to answer that question, it’s right up there with DNA to RNA to Protein.

  2. This whole website is industry funded propaganda. Its funny how this industry fights labeling… If your product was so beneficial companies would use the fact that it is GMO as a selling point. The whole fact that GMO industry is fighting labeling and trying to hide where their products are used says volumes about it. Just label GMO products and shut the f*** up about it. Let consumers decide what they want.

    • I’d be fine with this if there were actual consequences for people who spout unsupported, or downright false information, and I mean criminal charges, not civil action.

      Want to claim that GMO X causes cancer at Y exposure level? You better have the OECD-451 or 453 compliant study on hand to support that causal relationship.

      If anything the very fact that 37% of respondents to this survey thought that non-GMO didn’t have Gene’s.

      Fix the scientific literacy rate first, then we can talk about having an informed discussion on this.

    • I don’t know the details of GLP funding, but lets say I take your word for it and a lot comes from “industry,” so that would mean you would level the same criticism at organizations like the Environmental Working Group, Organic Consumers Association, and Non-GMO Project, is that correct?

    • You are confusing the customers for engineered seeds (farmers) with the consumers of the resulting crops. I have little doubt that seed producers have figured out how to reach their customers in predominantly agricultural areas.

      As an aside, I’m curious why you are interested in crop genetics: does this extend to all foods that you consume?

      Labeling is typically used for three purposes: to show nutritional information (e.g. protein), to show any components that might affect health (e.g. salt), and for marketing. So-called “GMO”-derived foods are already labeled regarding nutrition and health, so presumably your interest is in supporting certain businesses—i.e. your dreaded “industry”.

      Regarding the funding of this website, can you share some more detail, and your source of information?

  3. Unfortunately Richard Strohman died, but his words carry weight when it comes to the discussion of the genetic engineering of crops for food products.

    Richard Strohman, Ph.D.
    Professor Emeritus, Department of Molecular and Cell Biology
    University of California at Berkeley

    When you insert a single gene into a plant or an animal, the technology will work. You will be able to move that gene from organism A to organism B. You will be able to know that the transfer was successful. You will be able to know that the gene is being expressed, and even that the function of the gene is being expressed. So you’ll get the desired characteristic. But you will also get other effects that you couldn’t have predicted from your original assumptions. You will have also produced changes in the cell or the organism as a whole that are unpredictable. And that’s what the science is having to deal with.
    “The reason why Monsanto can claim scientific soundness is that they are only answering the technical question, ‘Can I move this gene and this characteristic from A to B?’ They are not asking the questions that the current understanding of cell biology demands. You can ask the technical question and get the answer you are looking for. You can take a gene from A and put it into B. We know that. But that’s the only question we can answer with certainty. We now realize that there are a whole host of other questions.
    “Genes exist in networks, interactive networks which have a logic of their own. The technology point of view does not deal with these networks. It simply addresses genes in isolation. But genes do not exist in isolation. And the fact that the industry folks don’t deal with these networks is what makes their science incomplete and dangerous. If you send these new genetic structures out into the world, into hundreds of thousands of acres, you’re going into the world with a premature application of a scientific principle.
    “We’re in a crisis position where we know the weakness of the genetic concept, but we don’t know how to incorporate it into a new, more complete understanding. Monsanto knows this. DuPont knows this. Novartis knows this. They all know what I know. But they don’t want to look at it because it’s too complicated and it’s going to cost too much to figure out. The number of questions, the number of possibilities for what happens to a cell, to the whole organism when you insert a foreign gene, are almost incalculable. And the time it would take to assess the infinite possibilities that arise is beyond the capabilities of computers. But that’s what you get when you’re dealing with living systems.”

    • The fallacy in this statement is that these “interactive networks” exists and are impacted with any kind of plant variety creation, be it using GE or not: When our ancestors were selecting plants with desirable traits this was because of a mutation that also messed up with the “interactive network” of genes.
      We now have genomics and proteonics to tell us that the so-called “natural” plant reproduction and evolution is certainly as much messy as any gene edition using modern biotechnology.
      Thus if you want to scare people (“crisis” really?) you have to do it for all the food we eat and not use this very well known fact to single out a specific varietal creation tool.

      • I’m in a mood for agreeing with people today! Look what happened when plant breeders wanted tomatoes that were easier to ship, they lost a lot of their flavour, perhaps we will find that non-browning apples will have a little less sweetness, or that faster growing salmon produce less omega-3 fatty acids (notice that advertisers no longer use the term “fatty” here), but isn’t it also likely that a rare unexpected change could produce a positive difference? We have to try if we want to find out.

  4. “From GMOs to BPA, why are the wealthy more likely to fall for food pseudoscience?”

    The wealthy are more likely to fall for any pseudoscience. The wealthy are more likely to respond to emotions than use reason. The wealthy are not very scientifically astute….but they think they know everything.

  5. It is simple. The wealthy aren’t really more prone to fall for pseudoscience than non-wealthy. But marketers don’t target the poor. They target people with disposable income… i.e. the wealthy. So the scare tactics that are used to sell higher margin products disproportionately impact the wealthy simply because the wealthy have more access to this information via devices and the poor can’t afford the more expensive alternatives.

    • I agree, and that the poorer people (and those that are informed) will buy cheaper vegetables, relying on real scientists to have given the producer permission to sell the product as a “food for human consumption”. It might mean we still buy foods with MSG in them (I don’t bother reading the labels) but in small amounts such “chemicals” do no real harm and may even be beneficial. I try to eat as wide a variety of different things as possible even things I’m not sure I like.

    • I think that’s a reason, but not the only one. Another reason in the case of food is that organic food costs more, and is therefore considered high-cachet. Such is the folly of our age.

  6. The Wealthy people don’t have access to those news they listen to other matters but non wealthy irrespective of their work have time for the news concerning GMO’s which will really help them to know how to live their life. But the wealthy people fall shorts and victims to the effects of this GMO’s.

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