Looking at this issue, our first of the year, you can see some of the things we love: surveys, predictions, polls and trends. They help us to order our world, they back up our own views, inform us of the zeitgeist, become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Sometimes, however, they also show us the width of the gap between perception and knowledge. That gap is an opportunity – sometimes for education, sometimes for marketing. Often, it’s also really funny.
Case in point: the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University conducts a monthly survey on consumer attitudes toward food (the Food Demand Survey). January’s included a new question that revealed a surprising desire for mandatory food labeling in key areas of concern, like the country of origin for meat products (86.5 percent supported it), food containing GMOs (82 percent), and food containing DNA (80 percent). Meanwhile, only 39 percent supported a tax on sugared soda.
See how important surveys are? They reveal our nation’s third-deepest fear: genetics. It’s not clear how consumers feel about labeling the actual sugars that form the backbone of DNA, but they certainly won’t vote for anyone promising to put a tax on them.
Meanwhile, A.C. Nielsen revealed recently that across North America, only a little more than half of consumers (56 percent) believe claims on food packaging – but let it be known that the ones they believe (or maybe the ones that they don’t?) they’ll gladly pay for. About 80 percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay more for food that was labeled healthier.
There’s a disconnect here: the polls are reflective of a creeping distrust of our nation’s food and beverage industry, and that’s not good for anyone. If there’s a feeling that there’s something dirty about food sourcing that we just don’t trust, and it’s evolved into a conspiracy theory that puts the government and food manufacturers in cahoots in a plot to make us all fat, gluten-allergic, and hungry at the same time, that means that the establishment is in trouble.
We don’t believe in conspiracies here, for the most part, but we do believe in reading trends and trying to do the right thing, especially before we’re forced to. Right now, much of the fast growth in the industry is coming from brands that are strongly tied to the beliefs that are aligned with trends of health and wellness, sustainability, natural and organic. Non-GMO is nearly as popular as organic – even if it isn’t really understood. When a badge that removes you from the mainstream of food production is seen as an ideal, there’s either a lack of education about the benefits of the mainstream, or else the mainstream needs to move. The people themselves, they already are – they’re reverting to Paleo diets. They’re following the Food Babe. They’ve gone raw.
So what do we do? Mark Bittman, a New York Times columnist, recently called for a revamping of the nation’s food policy to address “agriculture, nutritional health, and environmental health.” That’s a great start, to be sure; I think as a mantra, an overarching goal, it would hit it all. What’s interesting is that the people are already looking for that, and the companies that are thinking about it are thriving. They don’t even need to take out the DNA. They’ve already evolved.