Who should be trusted when it comes to the science of food safety?

The eating habits of consumers are changing and pop culture may be a big reason

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Consumers are changing their eating habits, sometimes sparked by health restrictions and ethical reasoning, but misinformation is presenting farmers with their biggest struggle, said a University of Alberta professor.

Dr. Timothy Caulfield told the crowd at the recent Canadian Centre for Food Integrity Food System Forum Series, that there is a breakdown in trust happening throughout the world with science.

“This breakdown in trust leads to people like Gwyneth (Paltrow) being invited to Washington, D.C. as an expert to talk about GMOs,” said Caulfield.

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He said genetic modification is an area of science with the biggest gap between what the experts think and common public perceptions.

“Social media spreads what is popular, not what is true. It spreads a culture of what is untrue,” said Caufield.

Why it matters: Agricultural industry players need to learn where consumers are getting their misinformation to enable them to better refute the data and relate to them on a more personal level.

Celebrities have an incredible reach to the world’s population and it’s hard to ignore how much pop culture plays a role in the eating habits of today’s society, he said.

Ellen Degeneres, a vegan for ethical reasons, has 77 million Twitter followers and PETA, an animal rights group, has more than 1.06 million followers.

Meanwhile, the agricultural advocacy group called Ag More than Ever and the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, have 23,100 and 1,774 followers, respectively.

“Storytelling and powerful anecdotes — which, let’s be honest, that’s often what a celebrity is, a powerful anecdote — they can overwhelm the scientific research. No matter how big that mountain of data is, a good narrative, a good story, can overwhelm that data,” said Caulfield.

It can be difficult to change a person’s view of their eating habits because it becomes their way of viewing the world and how they want the world to view them, he added. This personal branding becomes such a large part of their lifestyle and how they identify themselves, it can be difficult to change their opinion.

Through Caulfield’s Netflix documentary “A User’s Guide to Cheating Death,” he speaks with consumers on why they choose organic.

Consumers aren’t sure who to trust. They say they can’t trust the industry, university professors and research institutions at the core of many studies because they view that as a profit motive. If an industry is associated with a study on food, the trust is lower.

Incorrect information, mainly coming from the internet and social media platforms, is absorbed by consumers, leading them to the incorrect understandings.

As well, it’s too confusing for many consumers to understand and so they avoid it all together.

“The harder something is to understand the more unnatural it seems,” said Alan Levinovitz, author of The Gluten Lie. “There is something very appealing to a vision of a world, a natural world in which you actually understand how things are made, in which you understand what it is that you are putting into your body because in a sense, then it’s like you. You’re not putting something in that’s foreign to you, that’s unnatural to you and chemicals are foreign to people. Processing of food is foreign to people in that natural remedies isn’t foreign to people,” said Levinovitz.

Caulfield said it is imperative to teach critical thinking skills throughout people’s lives to help individuals to understand that just because something is new and popular does not mean it is best.

It’s important to keep records straight, to use science to support the industry’s organizations and to learn how to communicate better with consumers. This will help to rebuild the trust with consumers and reroute the trends, he said.

About the author

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Jennifer Glenney

Jennifer is a farm reporter who lives in Cayuga, Ontario.

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