Researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) Center for Nutrition Research surveyed low income consumers to learn more about what terms and information about fruits and vegetables may influence their shopping intentions. Among the key findings, misleading messaging which inaccurately describes certain fruits and vegetables as having “higher” pesticide residues results in low income shoppers reporting that they would be unlikely to purchase any fruits and vegetables – organically or non-organically grown.
“We were surprised to see how informational content that named specific fruits and vegetables as having the highest pesticide residues increased the percentage of shoppers who said they would be unlikely to purchase any type of fruits and vegetables,” says Britt Burton-Freeman, associate professor of food science and nutrition, ITT’s Center for Nutrition Research. “The concern is that depending on the structure of the communication about pesticides and fruits and vegetables, this could turn people away from wanting to purchase any fresh produce.”
“Despite efforts by the health community, consumption of fruits and vegetables is stagnating,” says Elizabeth Pivonka, Ph.D, R.D. and president, Produce for Better Health Foundation. “This new study shows what we have been concerned about for some time, that safety fears may be another barrier to consumption of these healthy and nutritious foods. The impact of the fear-based messaging on low income consumers is especially troubling since many don’t have access or can’t afford non-organic produce.”
“Their tactic clearly isn’t working and it’s actually backfiring since this research shows that consumers may react to their message by deciding not to buy any produce at all – organic or non-organic,” says Teresa Thorne of the AFF. “For the benefit of consumers, especially low income consumers, this study shows it is time for groups like EWG to rethink their strategy for promoting organics and move away from tactics intended to scare consumers from buying the more affordable and accessible produce items,” Thorne says.
The study authors also found conflicting health and safety messages, including those about pesticide residues, were having a negative impact on consumers. Among their findings and recommendations: “The issue of organic can swamp or compete with other messages about nutrition, as evidenced by the data presented here. Perceiving that there is an overwhelming amount of sometimes contradictory information about healthy eating could make some consumers defeatist about trying to eat healthily. Given the potential implications of competing messages about healthy eating, it is important that those who want to improve food production techniques and those who want to improve nutrition cooperate to create consistent messaging about healthy eating.”
Dr. Burton-Freeman reached a similar conclusion. “Hearing that the majority of shoppers in this survey trust dietitians/nutritionists, scientists and physicians for health and safety information about fresh fruits and vegetables, this is an important opportunity for these professionals working in low-income populations. It is an opportunity to educate shoppers about organic and conventionally grown produce, particularly about best practices for washing, storing and preparing all fruits and vegetables to maximize their enjoyment and nutritional value and minimize their confusion and safety concerns.”
“Hopefully the peer-reviewed research from IIT and John Hopkins will have an impact on groups like EWG especially since the science clearly shows both organic and non-organic produce is very safe and can be eaten with confidence,” AFF’s Thorne says. “And, decades of nutritional research primarily conducted using non-organic produce shows that a plant rich diet leads to better health and a longer life. So choose either or both organic or non-organic produce, but choose to eat more every day.”
The Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF) is a non-profit organization formed in 1989 which represents organic and conventional farmers and farms of all sizes. Alliance contributors are limited to farmers of fruits and vegetables, companies that sell, market or ship fruits and vegetables or organizations that represent produce farmers. AFF’s mission is to deliver credible information to consumers about the safety of all fruits and vegetables. AFF does not engage in lobbying nor does it accept any money or support from the pesticide industry. In the interest of transparency, AFF’s entire 2011 tax return is posted on safefruitsandveggies.com.