Information Overload: Dilemma of Food Sustainability and Nutrition

September 26, 2018 admin 0 Comments

People love few things more than tasty food. And the value of policies that support a secure, healthy, and sustainable food system, articulated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are clear. But in a climate characterized by information overload, low-levels of scientific literacy, distrust of institutions and leaders, communicating about food sustainability and nutrition requires more than science and facts to win hearts and minds.

When it comes to communicating about nutrition, the good news is that most Americans (72%) understand the value of eating healthy.[1] And the majority (59%) think it is important that foods they purchase or consume are produced in a sustainable way.[2] Half (52%) believe the current U.S. food and agricultural system is sustainable — but a quarter do not, and as many are not sure.[3] What do consumers see as top goals to help make U.S. food and agriculture more sustainable? Topping the list, our research found, is storing and using water more efficiently; preserving and protecting forests, land, wildlife habitat, and biodiversity; reducing hunger, food insecurity, malnutrition, and food waste; using fewer pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides; and promoting soil health, using fertilizers more efficiently, and decreasing erosion and runoff. [4]

Despite an understanding of the value of nutrition, research we conducted for USDA/FNS among teens found that eating healthfully was not a top priority, and many said their health class was boring. What makes learning interesting? Teens told us they are interested learning about food choices that support their health, personal appearance, and athleticism — and skills they can use practically in their daily lives. They said they are motivated when learning involves social interaction with peers, low-key competition, and fun. Using these insights, Weber Shandwick created Power Up!, an engaging curriculum for teaching nutrition and physical activity to teens. In a pilot test of the curriculum in three high schools, teachers found it flexible, scalable, and engaging. Students reported it useful, information, and interesting.

Engagement is a big part of the challenge. But on topics that involve real or perceived risk tradeoffs or the appearance of conflicting facts, communications can fall flat. In fact, in today’s cluttered information environment, 8 in 10 adults have come across conflicting nutrition information, and many said that makes them doubt their choices.[5] In this case, many turn to experts or credible sources. Public confidence in scientists (76%) and in the positive impact of science on the quality of food (62%) is quite high,[6] and so expert spokespersons can help bridge the gap.

But in the context of value disputes, scary science, and fear, experts and facts fall short. For example, there is a 51-point gap between expert and public opinion on whether foods grown from genetically modified seeds (GMOs) are safe to eat. In this case, our research found that a lot of information about the value of GMO farming left doubts. However, when we briefly explained what GMOs are — and are not, highlighted compelling benefits that link to public policy priorities — like reducing the amount of pesticides, coupled with the scientific consensus around safety, consumers responded positively and support for GMO technology improved dramatically. Hearing this information from trusted sources who share their values can make the difference.

[1] Pew Research Center survey of 1,480 U.S. adults 18+, 2016

[2] International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation survey of 1,009 U.S. adults 18–80, March 2018

[3] KRC Research survey of 1,206 U.S. adults conducted July 19–20, 2018

[4] KRC Research survey of 1,206 U.S. adults conducted July 19–20, 2018

[5] International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation survey of 1,009 U.S. adults 18–80, March 2018

[6] Pew Research Center surveys of U.S. adults 18+, 2014 and 2016


By Mark Richards, SVP KRC Research and Weber Shandwick Washington D.C.