Study shows we have no idea what we’re eating. But wait…

The more important question is: Do we know what we're reading?

You may have seen this recent survey making the rounds: “New Data Highlights Rift between Consumers’ Perceptions, Science about Food Choice.” This is the kind of survey we usually dig because, as our own Joe Fassler so metaphorically said in a recent interview on Heritage Radio Network, we believe in “raising the sea level of food literacy.”

Studies emphasizing how little we as consumers truly understand about what we’re consuming—in product and propaganda—typically please us. That’s because they provide an opportunity to make concrete the peril we’re all in as we stand, decoderless and vulnerable, in front of a supermarket shelf-talker that’s advertising the latest, greatest, lowest-cal, free-est-from, 100 percent, totally organic! nutz & seeds bar. In other words, such studies affirm what we know about what we’re eating (and what food labels tell us we’re eating), which is basically nothing.

We could end our survey coverage here with the following headline: “This survey on how confused we are is everything!”

Alas, we may need to start advocating for survey literacy, too. Because knowing what you’re reading is often as important as knowing what you’re eating. Here are the topline basics on this one: The Truth About Food Survey was conducted by Kynetec, an agricultural and animal health market research company. It surveyed 3,337 urban consumers in 11 countries—the United States, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and Peru—on their understanding of the meaning of food labels and the differences in farming methods, between conventional and organic.

If you read the above-the-fold findings, they won’t sound much like breaking news. Two-thirds of respondents, for instance, report buying “all natural” or organic foods because they perceive them to be safer and healthier. Yup. (Food marketers know this, too!) The survey also showed consumers found “no added hormones” and “no antibiotics” labels confusing. One-third of consumers surveyed believed “antibiotic free” meant that products without that label contained antibiotics. Okay, no big surprise there. We could end our survey coverage here with the following headline: “This survey on how confused we are is everything!”

But we won’t. As you get a little farther down the page, you’ll notice this finding: More than half of respondents believe the majority of farms are run by corporations. Okay, that’s interesting. (In case you’re in that camp, it’s not true: 97 percent of U.S. farms are family owned and 88 percent are small family farms.) And now, take a look at this, directly from the study’s website:

  • All living things contain hormones – people, plants, animals, and therefore the food we eat.
  • There are no added hormones used in pork or poultry production around the world, even though about three-quarters of consumers surveyed believe they are.
  • In beef and dairy production, hormone levels in food from animals supplemented with hormones are nearly identical to those that aren’t. And, hormones in naturally hormone-rich foods like cabbage and soy contain far higher levels than meat, milk and eggs.
  • Regardless of whether an animal was sick and treated with an antibiotic or was raised entirely without antibiotics, the food you buy is free from any harmful antibiotic residue. Testing ensures it.

‘Huh,’ I thought, as I read it. ‘This feels a little like…marketing wearing a survey costume.’ But, marketing for what? So I had a look at the bottom of the page, where the citations were listed. The information in the final bullet point came from a website called (tagline: “Debunking Myths About Beef”.) And at the bottom of that page is a little logo. What does it say? “Funded by The Beef Checkoff.” ICYMI, the beef checkoff is a federally-mandated research and promotion program funded by the industry.

Reading a study is like eating a cinnamon roll.

At the bottom of the page is a note about the “Enough Movement,” which evidently sponsored this survey and is sharing it under the campaign name “The Truth About Food” (#Truthaboutfood). If you visit the Enough Movement website, you’ll see it is a global community working together to build a food-secure world. Sounds fine! The site provides various ways you can educate yourself on issues ranging from “the egg production reality” to “the global impact of hunger” and “the need for antibiotics.” And there it is again, as I’m reading in: that nagging feeling that I’m being marketed to by a lobby I can’t quite identify.

Reading a study is like eating a cinnamon roll. Or an artichoke. Or an Awesome Blossom! Point being, you’ve got to peel back the layers, one by one, and then decide if you’re going to eat what’s in the center. In this case, the copyright on the Truth About Food site is “2017 Elanco”. Elanco is advertised on the survey site as a division of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company. Elanco makes antibacterials, anticoccidials, vaccines and parasiticides—drugs for food and companion animals. That’s why I kept sensing the study findings were leading me down a primrose (or parasiticides) path.

Now, to be clear, I don’t take issue with a food animal, drug-developing division of a big pharmaceutical company sponsoring a study. Nor do I take issue with having to peel back the murky film of multiple digital layers to find out what food animal, drug-developing division it is. As far as this study goes, it was all pretty freely available on the #Truthaboutfood site. I do, however, advocate for consumers of food-related studies to do the same thing I did. Press pass the headline, find out who the key players are, what they produce (whether product or research), and on which end of the food system they sit—big, small, or somewhere in between.

Study literacy is part of food literacy. Learning how to interpret findings is one thing. But learning how to interpret who found the findings is another. They both matter as much as what the label on that nutz & seeds bar says. Maybe even more.

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Kate Cox is The Counter's editor. She oversees partnerships and edits investigative, feature, and senior staff reporting. Prior to joining The Counter in 2015, Kate was a freelance reporter for radio and text, focused on health policy and the American age boom. She has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, and others. She holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she produced and reported a three-part radio documentary on the nation's first emergency shelter for victims of elder abuse.