A new report paints a picture of two Americas divided over something that's a critical part of their daily life — food.
On one side are those who care deeply about the food they eat and how it is produced. These Americans embrace organic foods, are suspicious of genetically modified crops and are guided by the belief that they'll live a long time if they prioritize nutrition and exercise.
On the other side are those who pay little attention to how the food they eat winds up on their plate. These folks are more likely to doubt that scientists have a clear idea about what makes for a healthy diet, and to fall short of their own eating goals.
Here’s the twist:
These are the findings of a report from the Pew Research Center, which surveyed 1,480 American adults about their food values.
The researchers found that many people don't just have opinions about their food, they have full-blown food "ideologies."
"Food has become a flashpoint in American culture and politics," the researchers wrote in their report, released Thursday. "The way Americans eat has become a source of potential social, economic and political friction."
You can get a good idea of which side a person is on by asking how he or she feels about organic and genetically modified foods.
In general, the more people prefer organic foods, the more skeptical they are of GM foods.
Among the 16% of survey-takers who care "a great deal" about GM foods, 75% believe these foods are worse for their health than conventional alternatives, and 81% say organic foods are superior. However, among the 46% of survey-takers who don't care much or at all about GM foods, only 17% have concerns about their nutritional value and 35% think organic foods are better.
Also, 76% of those who care most about GM foods say that some or most of what they eat is organic. Meanwhile, 75% of those who aren't concerned about GM foods say they little to none of the food they eat is organic.
Overall, 55% of Americans in the study said they thought food produced organically was better for their health than food produced by conventional means. That compares with 3% who felt organic food was worse and 41% who thought both methods were the same.
In addition, 39% of all people surveyed said they thought GM foods were worse for their health than conventional foods, while 10% said GM foods were superior. Nearly half (48%) of respondents said both were about the same.
People who care deeply about GM foods follow through on their beliefs at the grocery store (or farmers' market) — 89% said they buy organic foods, 74% buy foods with GMO-free labels, and 89% say they check nutrition labels before making purchasing decisions.
More than seven in 10 people agreed that "healthy eating is very important for a long and healthy life." However, this idea got more support among those who make a point of eating "healthy and nutritious" (86%) than with those who pay little to no attention to nutrition (56%). (It's also worth noting that 71% of Americans said exercise was an important factor too.)
Similarly, 70% of people focused on healthy eating said they "eat about what they should" on most days; only 13% of those who placed little priority on their diet said the same.
Two-thirds of those surveyed said they hear new information about food and health either daily or a few times a week. Much of that information is contradictory.
For some people, this wasn't a problem. Those who scored well on a short test of science knowledge were more likely to reconcile those conflicts by chalking them up to the fact that new research sometimes forces experts to change their minds. However, those who got lower scores were more apt to say the contradictions are a sign that the news reports they hear are unreliable. Overall, 61% of survey-takers said they weren't bothered by food news "whiplash" and 37% said it undermined their trust in food research.
The picture is a little different with respect to genetically modified foods. Among those who care about GM the most, half of those surveyed believe scientists who study genetic modification are unduly influenced by the food industry. Only 22% of people who care little about GM foods share this view of scientists.
Trust issues aside, a mere 14% of those surveyed thought scientists were in general agreement about the safety of GM foods. In reality, there is a consensus among American scientists that genetically modified crops are safe to eat.
These food fights are largely nonpartisan, the researchers found. For instance, 16% of both Republicans and Democrats surveyed said they care "a great deal" about GM foods, while 39% of Republicans and 40% of Democrats agreed that GM foods could pose problems for their health. Also, 50% of Republicans and 60% of Democrats had positive views about organics.
Men and women have "broadly similar views" about organic foods, and there are only "modest" gender differences with respect to GM foods. The survey also turned up "no differences" in beliefs about organic and GM foods based on family income.
One notable demographic divide was age — younger people were more likely to fall toward the pro-organic/anti-GM side of the spectrum than older people.
And here's a tip for those with holiday gatherings on their calendars: 31% of survey takers said that when they hosted parties, it bothered them at least a little bit when guests asked for "special food options," while 37% said hosts "should always ask guests ahead of time about food restrictions."
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