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Should Shamers be Ashamed? Moving Beyond the “Good” vs “Bad” Food Approach

In a culture where people increasingly consider their bodies to be temples and their health to be deeply connected to the food they eat, food shaming has become a culture all its own.  I understand the temptation to find it funny that food choices have become a gauge to judge a person’s worth, but let’s be honest about the fact that there are damaging consequences.

I recall a conversation with a dairy farmer who shared that a stranger approached her after she purchased an ice cream cone for her daughter and lectured her about the dangers of hormones in milk for young girls. The perennial Dirty Dozen report instills fear in consumers about purchasing conventionally raised produce, which is deemed perfectly healthy by U.S. food regulators.

To overcome it we must move beyond the binary options of “good food” and “bad food.” This harmful perception has been perpetuated not only by activist and advocacy groups, but often those in the food system either promoting a brand or lashing out at those critical of farming or food.

The Perils of Food Fights

Consider that the food fight phenomenon has resulted in lower nutrition for some, according to 2016 research, including the most vulnerable populations. Reports warning of pesticide residue on conventionally-produced fruits and vegetables have caused some shoppers to avoid all types of fruits and vegetables, whether the produce is organic or conventional. Pushing these consumers toward a less healthy diet is the wrong outcome, both ethically and economically.

We consistently hear frustration in our CFI consumer panels from consumers struggling to afford organic foods or antibiotic-free meats, for example, that they feel are healthier for their families. When moms on a budget lament that they can’t provide healthy food for their children because they can’t afford those kinds of foods, food shaming and food system marketing have gone awry.

It’s a real shame, considering the United States has the safest, most regulated food system in the world. But it’s the consequence of a culture the food system and food activists have created. Throw in social media and online food tribes – like keto dieters and clean eaters – who broadly share information that can cause angst in the grocery aisle for those struggling with choosing the “right” foods for themselves and their families.

Consumers simply want balanced information and to choose food that aligns with their values when it comes to production methods, packaging, and the like, not scare tactics that push them to avoid otherwise healthy and affordable foods.

Champions of A New Approach

What if the food system celebrated all foods, embracing the idea of consumers having many choices? The protein sector is a great example.

Several companies involved in meat production have jumped on the meat alternative bandwagon. The former CEO of one such company explained that all products in which the company is investing have one common link: protein, saying, “No one knows exactly what the future of food will look like. That’s why we’re exploring new approaches. Some will resonate with consumers more than others, but we believe every attempt will move us forward – as a business and as a planet hungry for protein.”

Why can’t consumers enjoy both heirloom fruits and vegetables and support genetic advancements that have dramatically reduced hunger and enabled farmers to produce more food while consuming fewer natural resources?

We can. Doing otherwise – perpetuating the “food fights” – can further alienate consumers from a food system whose labels and marketing strategies can be confusing. For example, there are no unsafe antibiotic residues in any meat sold in grocery stores, yet you’ll find meat package labels touting “antibiotic free” and ”no antibiotics ever.”

Let’s lessen the confusion and embrace food system diversity and customization – working to align food production with the array of values and ideals of a diverse and ever-changing consumer base. Giving consumers choices without judgment or sly marketing will build trust.

By Charlie Arnot
CEO of The Center for Food Integrity