It may seem like a ridiculous question, but that’s actually the premise of a study appearing in the upcoming March issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science by researchers at Loyola University in New Orleans. The study found that participants who were exposed to organic foods were altruistic and made harsher moral judgements of others’ behavior when compared to people who were exposed to fatty, sugary comfort foods or healthier, “neutral” foods which were not labeled as organic.
It’s true that “organic foods are often marketed with moral terms” like Honest Tea, Purity Life, and Smart Balance — as noted by the lead author of the study, Dr. Kendall Eskine. It’s also true that Dr. Eskine’s findings fit popular stereotypes perhaps a little too perfectly. Are organic consumers really more likely to act like jerks, or is this just a matter of the media latching onto an appealing pop-science story regardless of the facts?
Digging into the text of the study, I quickly realized that the media hype was missing the real story. (The full text isn’t available for free online, but here’s a good summary if you’re curious.) I found that the study involved an incredibly small sample of just 62 undergraduate students. None of them identified as consumers of organic foods. Now, I’ve met plenty of environmentalists who could get pretty self-righteous and judgmental about other people’s food choices, but those are not the group represented in this study.
What this study really exposes is not a deep, dark secret about organic consumers. Instead, it demonstrates perfectly how modern society rushes to frame food as a “moral” issue. You can’t turn on the TV or glance through a magazine rack without seeing sweet or fatty foods positioned as “sinful” or “bad,” even when eaten as a special treat or in moderation. And you can’t win — you’re just as likely to be teased or resented for eating food that’s “too healthy” by people who see you as conceited or superficial.
The problem with this framing is that it isn’t just about food; it extends to judging people based on what they eat (or what we assume they’re eating). What should be a conversation about health instead becomes an opportunity to shame people for their appearance. It’s not just cruel to people on the receiving end — it’s actually completely counterproductive from a public health perspective.
What we need instead is a radical shift in how we talk about diet. Eating isn’t a moral issue. Food is just food. It can be good or bad for you. Some “unhealthy” options can be made in healthier ways, like preparing chocolate cake from whole, natural ingredients at home… instead of purchasing a prepared variety packed with high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, and preservatives. And plenty of processed “healthy” foods actually aren’t that good for you either.
If we must make food into an issue of right and wrong, we need to stop assigning moral qualities to foods themselves. Instead, we need to start looking at the big picture — how those foods are produced, how their production impacts the Earth, and how the farmers growing those foods are treated. If Dr. Eskine had surveyed actual organic consumers, he would have found they do indeed hold strong beliefs about food, but that those judgements are rarely targeted at other individuals.
What he would have found is that most eco-conscious consumers probably don’t believe that what you eat makes you a good or bad person. Instead, it would have become clear that organic consumers believe passionately that every human being deserves access to healthy food, free of pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. That there are millions of people worldwide who care deeply about the impact their food has on the environment and on human health.
There’s probably a reason Dr. Eskine’s study doesn’t address these questions. After all, the real moral issues attached to organic food can’t be summed up in an entertaining soundbite.