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.
We sampled over 2,000 Americans age 18 and over online. Results were weighted to reflect United States 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This article originally appeared in The Conversation. You can read it here.