Nutrition Today: Low Income Shoppers and Fruits and Vegetables: What Do They Think?

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Peer reviewed research published in September 2016 in Nutrition Today shows fear-based messaging tactics used by activist groups and some organic marketers that invoke safety concerns about non-organic produce may be having a negative impact on consumption of fruits and veggies among low income consumers.  

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.

The findings are concerning since the safety claims carried predominantly by groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Only Organic about pesticide residues have been repeatedly proven to be scientifically inaccurate. For the last 20 years, EWG annually releases a so-called “dirty dozen” list which urges consumers to only eat organic versions of popular produce items accompanied by misleading and unscientific claims regarding pesticide residue levels. In fact, a peer reviewed analysis of EWG’s list showed that substitution of organic forms of produce for non-organic produce did not result in any decrease in risk because residue levels are so minute on these fruits and vegetables, if they are present at all.

Further an analysis by a toxicologist with the Personal Chemical Exposure Program of results of government sampling programs found that a person could eat hundreds to thousands of servings of a fruit or veggie in one day and still not have any effects from residues. This again illustrates how extremely low residues are on fruits and veggies, if present at all.

This IIT research compliments the peer reviewed study by John Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future published in January 2015 in the journal Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment. Those researchers conducted interviews with study participants to learn more about the way organic food is understood within consumers’ definitions of healthy food. John Hopkins researchers also focused on low income consumers because “this group is particularly important demographically given the disparate burden of diet-related diseases they carry and the frequency of diet-related messages they receive.”

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.

The IIT and John Hopkins research clearly show the importance of providing science-based, credible information to consumers so that facts, not fear, can guide their shopping choices.