The food arena is confusing and overwhelming, which leads to a confused and overwhelmed consumer, Kavin Senapathy, co-author of The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House told attendees of the NAFFS 100th Annual Convention. “While I’ll be talking about fear, my intention is for you to take away hope and a vision for a better and more honest, authentic food system and ideas of what part you can play in this crucial conversation. What do we know about fear, uncertainty and doubt – “FUD”?
Fear can be a good thing, she said. It keeps us safe and motivates us to keep our families safe. But what about fear based on deception and fear that stems from profit-motivated or ideologically-driven misinformation mongers? FUD, she said, is a disinformation strategy that’s been used for quite some time but particularly in the last 20 years. It was most famously deployed, she said, by Microsoft which integrated it into its corporate practice decades ago. It’s a tactic that’s been implemented in a lot of industries. Think car seats, home alarm systems and services that help to prevent identity theft. These are obvious examples. But when it comes to food, FUD marketing tactics aren’t always so obvious. “We’re pretty well versed in this but we’re not representative of the general public,” she said. “I’m sure each of you have a relative or friend who has warned you about one of the most frightening but nebulous words in Fear Babe’s marketing: ‘toxins’ – very scary. But there’s no question that our food supply has never been as safe as it is today.”
So how does a company differentiate its offerings in a saturated market? Senapathy asked the audience to picture the supermarket they visit the most. Even if you shop with a list, the choices are seemingly endless, she noted. “If we want fruit, not only are there pineapples, oranges, apples, berries, mangoes and bananas, there are also multiple options for each of these. Next think about the cereal aisle. There’s an entire aisle just for cereal. Picture the labels adorning the boxes on the shelves. They include emblems with buzzwords like natural, non-GMO, made with real fruit, made with real sugar, no artificial preservatives, no artificial flavors, no high-fructose corn syrup, cage-free, fat-free, free range, high in fiber, etc.” This is very frustrating, she said. In this saturated market with a safe and abundant food supply, what’s a FUD marketer to do? “One of the most effective ways for food industry players to grow their revenues is to differentiate their products in trivial ways disguised as meaningful ways. And then to paint everything else with a fear-laden brush. And one of those ways is to use buzzword marketing.”
The buzzwords are practically unavoidable, she said. “We’re inundated by them with every trip to the grocery store or every login to Facebook or every time we browse the Internet. And the proliferation of buzzwords makes sense. It’s a saturated market and consumers increasingly want information about where their food comes from, conditions for farm workers and factory workers, environmental impacts and more. So buzzwords provide the illusion of knowledge and empowerment. And consumers are made to feel like they are being responsible with their purchasing decisions. Even though so many products succumb to this labeling game every day in a race to keep up with the food jargon competition, are these buzzwords really meaningful?”
She challenged those in the audience to start seeing how the intersections of consumers’ food-based values drive one another and to always keep this in front of their minds when planning a few months or even years down the line. She said that when it comes to food science, it’s tempting to think we can all remain in our silos. That’s great in theory but in practice, it’s a lot messier, she said. There are constant and cumulative effects when it comes to perception about food issues, she added. They come together like gears and some of the gears are even more vague and influential. “Think of it like family values in keeping up with the Joneses. We have people’s opinions on sugar, processing, colors, preservatives, GMOs and they all come together in this amalgamation of vague perception of the food system. Then there’s influence from your aunts, television doctors and celebrities constantly throwing a wrench into the system. So there’s a justified anxiety beneath the farm-to-table movement under the proliferation of meaningless or misleading labels. On top of that is this desire to feel good about our choices as consumers.”
FUD marketers know that, she said, and are skilled at defining and wielding these anxieties. People want to feel as though they are being friendly to the environment, preserving the natural state of things, reaping health benefits and bringing the best to labor conditions or economic disparities. It’s not always as easy as choosing a specific label.
Another trick FUD marketers have up their sleeve is casting nebulous concepts as scapegoats or metaphors to stir up these “very justified” concerns in the consumer base, explained Senapathy. So opposition to artificial, processed and GMO have become symbolic for much larger anxieties. “There is natural news that says ‘let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food.’ And there’s Michael Pollen who likes to say things like ‘don’t eat anything that your great grandmother wouldn’t eat,’” she said.
Health fears are prevalent in today’s society, she added. “Depending on the affliction, the causes can be complex and the solutions equally complex. So with these daunting fears, such as cancer, looming over our families, it’s soothing to believe that maybe one or two threats, if averted, will prevent catastrophe,” she said. It’s similarly soothing, she said, to believe by averting a small handful of threats, it will keep us healthy. “So here enters food mantras like ‘if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it’ or ‘count chemicals, not calories.’ We’ve all heard a few of these. They tell us to shop the perimeters of the supermarket as if a whole grain pasta couldn’t be healthy because it’s in a center aisle. ‘Don’t eat anything that won’t eventually rot.’ That logic would rule out eating salt,” she said.
FUD marketers also know everyone loves an underdog. They love this narrative because it works but these are false dichotomies, Senapathy said. However, they are so prevalent – such as natural vs. artificial, organic vs. GMO, real vs. fake, small food vs. big food, and mom & pop shops vs. factories. “When it comes to false dichotomies, there is one that always gets me,” Senapathy said. “And that’s good mom vs. bad mom. A worried mom supposedly does better research than the FBI. One of my favorite examples of this good mom vs. bad mom is Zen Honeycutt. She is the founder of an organization called Moms Across America. They are anti-GMO, promote chemo-phobia and are anti-vaccine.” She said that in a documentary entitled Food Evolution, Honeycutt says she trusts social media more than most medical doctors, more than the CDC, more than the FDA, more than the EPA and that she doesn’t need a scientific study. “As ridiculous as this may seem, this is what we’re dealing with,” Senapathy said.
“As we review some specific examples of FUD marketing, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention ‘GMO’ and I put that in quotes for a reason,” Senapathy said. “Not only because it’s one of the topics I cover most often in my work but because it’s one of the most illustrated case studies when it comes to FUD marketing. The Non-GMO Project label adorns things like tomatoes, although they aren’t any genetically-engineered tomatoes on the market, orange juice (despite the fact that the citrus industry is suffering from citrus greening and there is a genetically engineered solution that could be a boon), hot fudge sauce which is not healthy no matter how you label it, chips (mundane), salt (kind of ridiculous), and even cat litter because we only want the best for our cats to relieve themselves in.”
“Moving the Goal Posts” is something the Non-GMO Project does very well, Senapathy said. And it is disguised as benevolence. “The Non-GMO Project will say vague things like avoid the ‘risk’ of GMO, that people have a right to know - the idea of a ‘right’ is always very compelling - and being more responsible than the government. We all know that definitions of natural differ between the FDA and USDA but with Non-GMO Project labeled items grabbing over $19 billion of the market last year and growing quickly, it doesn’t really matter to the consumer or to the Non-GMO Project what the FDA and the USDA say about natural vs. synthetic. Or about whether a GE yeast derived product is safe or not and now even whether gene-edited organisms are exempt according to the government. Non-GMO Project and others like them will always be one step ahead. And it will always behave as if it’s holier and cares more about us than the government does.”
Senapathy cited organic as another FUD tool. “Ask most consumers what they think organic means and you’ll likely hear that it was grown without toxic pesticides or it’s more nutritious or it’s better for the environment. A recent Pew research study found that about 61 percent of U.S. adults under 30 say organic produce is better for health than conventionally grown varieties as do 57 percent of those ages 30-49. None of these beliefs are true and I’ve spoken to many farmers who farm organic exclusively or organic and conventional and most of them don’t agree with this kind of misleading marketing.”
But the organic industry practice of intentionally misleading the public to increase market share is a demonstrable trend, she said, noting that a 2014 analysis at Academics Review shows widespread collaborative and pervasive industry marketing practices by marketers of organic product. These activities have contributed to false and misleading consumer health safety perceptions influencing food purchase decisions. She said the viral Organic Effect video from 2015 demonstrates how misinformation even from all the way across the world can affect us here. Pointing to an image in a chart, she explained that Coop, a chain of grocery stores known as a pioneer for organic food in Sweden, conducted an experiment on a family of five for three weeks. The family ate a conventional non-organic diet to keep food costs down and then switched to organic for two weeks, giving daily urine samples. Headlines about this study included “A new study suggests that just two weeks of eating a changed diet is enough to drastically reduce the amount of lingering agricultural chemicals.” The public latched onto this narrative. And despite Coop losing a lawsuit for misleading advertising, the damage was already done. “And it takes a lot to extradite it from the public psyche,” Senapathy said.
Referring to a slide that said “Their drink should be as organic as their play”, Senapathy said FUD marketers like to transform tangible concepts such as organic into nebulous value-based concepts. “So associating play and childhood with values of organic – it’s a good, nice wholesome package to sell.”
Misinformation is often spread by people Senapathy refers to as the Fear Babes. “They are attractive in either conventional or unconventional ways. People adore them. They look up to them, such as Deepak Chopra, Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow and Dr. Oz. They’re attractive and people want to be like them so it makes sense that they look up to them even though they probably shouldn’t.
“I understand some of you read my co-authored book, The Fear Babe, last year and you may have realized the book isn’t actually about Vani Hari, the blogger and self-styled investigator of what’s really in your food. Rather it uses her as a framework to discuss food misinformation and why it proliferates despite all of the evidence against all these popular myths.”
Since that book Dr. Joe Schwartz, a prolific communicator, named a whole new fallacy after her – the Food Babe fallacy – following a recent scare of phthalates in meat and cheese. “It’s a formula these FUD purveyors employ essentially by identifying a scary-sounding but innocuous food ingredient or process like azodicarbonamide or phthalates and choosing a company with household name recognition, like Subway or Kraft, and sending followers to petition the company about these alternative industrial uses to rake in additional followers,” she said.
She cited Hari’s petition to Subway to remove azodicarbonamide because it can also be found in yoga mats or sneaker soles, insisting that consumers deserve to eat “fresh” – not yoga mats. “So by that same logic perhaps we should ban iron fortification of foods or foods naturally containing the element because we could say we deserve to eat fresh – not stainless steel,” Senapathy said. Subway surrendered to the Food Babe army’s science scare demands and dropped azodicarbonamide from its bread in 2014. “So in one fell swoop Subway not only capitulated to a food fundamentalist’s tantrum, it helped cement unsubstantiated fear in an already food-weary public. I guess it would have been OK if it ended there but as with all food bullying, rather than be satisfied with Subway caving to her army’s demands, Hari moved the goal posts starting yet another petition against the restaurant chain in the following year.”
There aren’t easy solutions to combat this type of activity. “It’s going to get messy. First, we have to be aware of believing in this communication bridge,” said Senapathy. “A common mistake is to believe that if we could just impart our knowledge in a persuasive enough way with data and with evidence to a large enough sector of the population, then, of course, their behavior and beliefs will change to align with the facts. Even the most diligent critical thinker, however, is driven by social cues, values and the real-world and online communities and affiliations. And they are also driven by barriers to behavior change. We can yell until we lose our voices that everything is a chemical so you shouldn’t be afraid of it. There you go – conversation over. But it’s not going to work unless we first address people’s worries about their families, about corporate and government corruption, about their health and about the environment,” said Senapathy.
When engaging with others, Senapathy asked, what is more important – the forest or the trees? “That depends on context, i.e. with whom you’re communicating and the ultimate objective of your message. Think of the intersection between toxicology and nutrition, and nutrition with parenting and with food labeling and so on – with each part existing independently and as part of the whole. We also need to remember the middle ground. The most vocal will always be the minorities on either side of the extreme of a discussion. Because the vocal minority is so very loud, it makes sense to believe that they are representative of the whole but that’s really not the case.”
In these discussions – even with that vocal minority – the middle ground (the fence sitters) are watching, Senapathy said. They rarely say anything or speak up but they are listening. “We need to be aware of what I call the misinformation hydra, which symbolizes two things,” said Senapathy. “First, FUD concepts or their movement leaders will always be there; they are not going away. Even if we could in some ideal universe vanquish the idea that natural is better when it comes to flavors or preservatives or breeding methods, another nonsense spewing head is always going to grow back in its place. The misinformation hydra also refers to the intersection of evidence-scarce views. Food, politics, health – they all intersect with much broader issues. So mythology surrounding health care, medicine, illness, disease, chemo-phobia and fear all amalgamate into this much larger fear and do not rely on the truth. This is apparent from internet forums and activist rallies, but they also come from some of the biggest heroes of alternative medicine, naturopathy, television talk shows, and niche food markets.”
Another important thing to keep in mind, Senapathy said, is knowing the difference between what consumers want and what they want. Consumers navigate a maze when shopping for food and FUD marketers are good at herding them and telling them what they should want. The most obvious example of the stark difference between what consumers want and what they want, she said, is the right to know whether something is GMO or artificial or synthetic. People want to know this, she added, because of how synthetic, GMO, etc. have been falsely categorized in the first place.
Sometimes, Senapathy said, all consumers want to know is that food producers care. “So when it comes to caring, if I could boil it all down to one concept, one thing that I keep seeing food industry players failing at time and again is this one elusive but important objective – and that is authenticity in benevolence. And companies also need to respect consumer intelligence.”
Consumers want to feel empowered, she said. But slapping buzzwords onto labels or food packaging isn’t real empowerment. Perhaps the most meaningful label, she said, could be a URL that points to information that customers can look at that if they want. “We could talk about food labeling all day but what we have now is not adequate.”
Senapathy said there are two schools of thought on labeling – give the consumer what they want or try to combat this. “I’m on the side of trying to combat this and I hope this helps to start a dialogue that we can all have,” she said. “I see the tides turning, slowly, but they are turning. Behind the scenes I’ve heard of companies not making these changes and that consumers are getting sick of the fear marketing.”