Commentary: Fear-based marketing reduces fruit, vegetable usage

Issue Date: October 12, 2016
By Teresa Thorne
Activist groups that raise concerns about conventionally grown produce may actually be discouraging low-income shoppers from buying any sort of fresh fruits and vegetables, according to new research.

New peer-reviewed research published in Nutrition Today shows fear-based messaging tactics used by activist groups that invoke safety concerns about conventionally grown produce may be having a negative impact on consumption of fruits and vegetables among low-income consumers.

Researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology 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 that 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.

"We were surprised to see how informational content that named specific fruits and vegetables as having the highest pesticide residues increased the percentage of shoppers who said they would be unlikely to purchase any type of fruits and vegetables," says Britt Burton-Freeman, associate professor of food science and nutrition at the ITT Center for Nutrition Research. "The concern is that depending on the structure of the communication about pesticides and fruits and vegetables, this could turn people away from wanting to purchase any fresh produce."

"Despite efforts by the health community, consumption of fruits and vegetables is stagnating," says Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation. "This new study shows what we have been concerned about for some time: that safety fears may be another barrier to consumption of these healthy and nutritious foods. The impact of the fear-based messaging on low-income consumers is especially troubling."

The findings are also concerning because the safety claims about pesticide residues carried predominantly by groups like the Environmental Working Group have been repeatedly proven to be scientifically inaccurate. For the past 20 years, EWG has released a so-called "dirty dozen" list that urges people to avoid certain conventional produce items, accompanied by misleading and unscientific claims regarding pesticide residues.

Negative messaging about conventional produce is clearly not working and it's actually backfiring, since this research shows that consumers may react to that message by deciding not to buy any produce at all—organic or non-organic. For the benefit of consumers, especially low-income consumers, this study shows it is time for groups like EWG to rethink their strategy and move away from tactics intended to scare consumers from buying affordable and accessible produce items.

This IIT research complements the peer-reviewed study by the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future, published in January 2015 in the journal Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment. These researchers conducted interviews with study participants to learn more about their definitions of healthy food. The Johns 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."

"Hearing that the majority of shoppers in this survey trust dietitians/nutritionists, scientists and physicians for health and safety information about fresh fruits and vegetables, this is an important opportunity for these professionals working in low-income populations," Burton-Freeman said. "It is an opportunity to educate shoppers about organic and conventionally grown produce, particularly about best practices for washing, storing and preparing all fruits and vegetables to maximize their enjoyment and nutritional value and minimize their confusion and safety concerns."

Hopefully, the peer-reviewed research from IIT and Johns Hopkins will have an impact on groups like EWG—especially since the science clearly shows produce is very safe, regardless of production method used, and can be eaten with confidence.

So choose either or both organic or non-organic produce, but choose to eat more every day. That is the message we should be conveying to consumers.

(Teresa Thorne is with the Alliance for Food and Farming, a Watsonville-based organization dedicated to delivering credible information about the safety of fruits and vegetables. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.