Illusions of Food Morality

December 1, 2012

“Nothing Artificial—Ever!” declares a Whole Foods advertisement in Austin, Texas. Customers across the country are morally driven to support the growing “organic,” “natural,” and “sustainable” movements. Whole Foods is the king of this moral community, as its reputation embodies the purity and sanctity of food with ethical clarity—friendly to our earth, to our neighbors, and to our health. With Whole Foods on every corner, the moral shopper does not need to look far to feel warm and fuzzy about his shopping choices. But in October 2012, InfoWars exposed Whole Foods’ selling of unlabeled products containing genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). Quickly, the store’s virtuous persona came crashing down. The simple choice about food morality lost its clarity. Customers who value sustainable and natural food were faced with the unnoticed truths about their favorite trusted market. Despite the advertisements and the store’s reputation, Whole Foods was suddenly perceived as immoral.

Many overlooked illusions about the complexities behind the “right” food decisions were revealed by this controversy and by the shock that Whole Foods customers experienced. The moralization process about our food relies primarily on an instinctual reaction to our deep ethical values and fails to address the intricacies embedded in food justice issues. Despite often-unrecognized misconceptions, food morality continues to significantly drive our choices and behavior. In a commercial society aiming to profit from general food moral trends, the consumer’s flawed moralization process threatens the achievement of his ethical goals. Awareness of complicated nuances in food morality is necessary to guide Americans in moral decisions that better represent their ethical intentions.

When InfoWars released a video uncovering Whole Foods’ not-so-wholesome products to the public, the organic-oriented market had a lot to fight against. “The majority of Whole Foods customers, it turned out, had no idea the company was selling GMO’s” (Adams, Natural News). Genetically modified organisms are artificially engineered and genetically altered ingredients. Since GMO’s are artificial, in contrast to Whole Foods’ motto and reputation, customers felt betrayed by their faithful health grocers. Suddenly, the once sacred haven of Whole Foods became the polar opposite. Unlabeled GMO’s, though entirely legal, were seen as deceptive, and morally minded food shoppers lost the simple trust that allowed for an easy choice.  “If Whole Foods, a respected niche leader in the organic movement, can get away with their massive deception, anyone can,” warns InfoWars (Melton, Dykes). This anti-GMO, food justice movement evolved into a ballot initiative, Proposition 37, in California. Proposition 37 would require labeling GMO’s on processed foods. The initiative did not pass but managed to receive an impressive 46% vote in support, which was considered by food activists to be a great start (Woo, OC Weekly). The shock of Whole Foods’ GMO scandal ignited an unsettling awareness in consumers about their unquestioned faith in the store’s morality, ultimately exposing the flaws in their instinctual, non-investigative moralization process.

GMO’s were eagerly perceived as immoral by the general food justice movements. Since GMO’s are unnatural, they must cause harm to the environment and our health and therefore oppose ethical criteria. The reality is not so clear. The risks of GMO’s have been researched heavily, but scientists are unable to foresee any long-term effects, making a diagnosis of GMO “morality” quite difficult. The potential GMO risks are the irreversible spreading of genes to the environment that could take over a natural habitat, and a possible risk for allergies or diseases (Johansson). Anders Johansson, who wrote his master thesis in applied ethics from Linkoping University, conveys an important uncertainty that exists about GMO technology. He writes, “Worries concerning our ‘know-how’ about how genes act together and what might happen when you alter the orders of genes in plants…has also been expressed.” In addition to GMO’s possible risks, many people are simply put off by the idea of eating something that has been scientifically altered. “If you can’t feed this to pig,” says farmer Jim Bridge about GMO corn feed, “why are you eating it?” (Carpenter, Pittsburg Post-Gazette)

Besides the worries, “research generated shows GMO products have little negative impact on the environment and human health” (Napier, The Ohio Experience). The motivation for GMO manufacturing is mainly economic, and, as most people are unaware, helps food production succeed in innumerable ways. Mark Guiltinin, a Penn State University professor of plant molecular biology, asserts that farmers have been crossbreeding crops for centuries. “The development of disease and insect-resistant crops between the 1940’s and 1970’s enabled ‘a lot of hungry people in India and Africa to benefit,’’” he said in a Pittsburg Post-Gazette report (Carpenter). GMO’s, therefore, allow for a more economic farming production, which helps to provide attainable and affordable food for people in need around the world. Psychologist Steven Pinker agrees that agricultural science has reduced world hunger, explaining that the father of the “Green Revolution,” Norman Borlaug, is credited with saving more lives than anyone else in history (The Moral Instinct). After innovating new skills for cross-breeding, harvesting, and planting to produce unusually disease-resistant strains of wheat crop in Mexico in 1944, Borlaug took his new agricultural technologies to other countries with food supply problems like India and Pakistan. This “Green Revolution” awarded Norman Borlaug the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 (Nature Publishing Group). If GMO’s have not been officially proven for any health or environmental risks, and they aid in the feeding of the hungry, is this phenomenon really so “immoral?”

The correct answer is not clearly defined. A fragile balance between serious risks and moral values can be weighed with different priorities and concerns. The important reality is that the customers who hold their morals highly are unaware of the weights that pull on the spectrum. Just as the slogan “Nothing Artificial—Ever!” is misleading, the conversation about GMO morality is not fully uncovered. The complexities of food morals are often not explored or understood; yet these morals are the driving force behind our decisions. While food activists protest for the “right to choose” and the requirement of labeling GMO products, agricultural science continues to provide affordable food around the world and is not proven to be harmful. In a study about consumer attitudes toward GMO’s, it was concluded that views about GMO products are greatly influenced by the perceived consequences associated with them (Napier, Tucker, Henry, Whaley). Risk perception is a significant factor in food morality, and ultimately this instinctual reaction to morality in food may not compete with fact, no matter how many lives the “Green Revolution” saved.

As society becomes more aware and worried about the possible risks and negative effects of processed foods on our health and the environment, “natural” and “organic” are buzzwords that translate quickly to “moral.” Food morality is measured on numerous scales—environmental effects, sustainability, animal welfare, nutrition, farm locality, the amount of resources used in production, and more. Despite the many categories and overlapping issues, often times these buzzwords conceal the underlying complexities about food justice and polarize our food decisions: it’s either right or wrong. But in truth, food morality issues are much more nuanced, and this fact cannot be ignored. Psychologists discovered a “health halo” around foods that are perceived to be “healthy” (Scicurious, Scientific American). This halo helps people to make quick, instinctual choices about food. The complication is, though, that health halos are often centered on food that is not actually as healthy as its reputation, like low fat yogurt, which is usually very high in sugar. Even the moralized word “natural” is often misleading about grocery produce, since there are no regulatory standards to label a food with this “health halo” buzzword. Food justice awareness is ascending around the country, and many companies advertise in hopes of attracting this morally minded market. Labels, mottos, and slogans, just like Whole Foods’, can likely mislead moral customers who choose their food with ethical criteria but do not investigate an issue’s intricacies. This reality is evident in the consumer shock felt after the GMO exposure at Whole Foods. Even people who really care about their food and its morality, like most Whole Foods fans, were completely unaware of the details about their choices. From this shock, we learn that consumers too often overlook the depths of the food issues they value.

Professor Eric Hekler explored the effects of human morals in eating habits. He and his colleagues Tom Robinson and Christopher Gardner published a study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, which found that students who studied food production ethics made more health-conscious food choices than students who took courses on human health. “We got people to eat better by focusing more on the environmental and sustainability aspects, rather than focusing just on a message of health,” Hekler said. Rather than deciding which food to eat based on nutrition facts, people were more heavily influenced by their moral perception about food ethics. As students became more knowledgeable about these ethical considerations, their moral criteria for food was engrained into the decision making process at the grocery store. This study shows that morality affects us on a “gut level,” which may play a larger role in our behavior than facts (ScienceDaily). Hekler’s study offers an explanation for the “health halo” that so greatly influences us. Since moral perception is the instinctual motive in food choices, the “gut level” quickly attracts the perceived-to-be moral products, despite the often hidden realities of a food’s nutrition or moral complexity.

Since this moral instinct affects our daily choices, it is imperative that we understand the causes and effects of this influence and the important rational steps that are overlooked on this “gut level.” Steven Pinker adds another layer to Hekler’s concept of the influential “gut level” reactions to moral choices, commenting that this process can in fact seize our decision-making and motivations. Pinker writes of this overpowering force: “Moralization is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a distinctive mindset commandeers our thinking” (The Moral Instinct). When this switch flips on, people feel a determined virtuous drive and are inspired to enlist others to their moral cause. The assuredness that we feel by our moralization switch may actually blind us from investigating our choices. Moral issues are deep in complexities and require more exploring than our first instinctual perceptions. The confidence that radiates from the psychological state of moralization may deter people from realizing this necessity. By relying purely on our “gut level” reactions and the confidence of the moralization “switch,” we simplify our choices and ultimately threaten the true morality of our decisions.

Similar to the “health halo” around certain foods that consumers are attracted to by the belief that they are making healthy choices, Pinker describes an “aura of sanctity” that distracts people from an objective judgment on morality (The Moral Instinct). This aura is created by conceptions about reality that are presented to us—by our parents, our teachers, the television and the advertisements on the subway. In the realm of food morality, consumers form an aura of sanctity around certain brand names, grocers, farmers, and labels. Once a friend or an advertisement has convinced us that these brands or labels represent the morally upright choice, an unchallenged halo and sanctified aura become associated with it. For many, Whole Foods is (or was) a symbol of pure food morality. From the stores’ buzzwords in slogans and mottos, morally satisfied customers spread this conception around the nation, along with innumerable “natural,” “organic” or “sustainable” food distributors and movements. With the use of these blindingly “holy” themes, Whole Foods and its entourage were left unchallenged and unquestioned by the majority of its faithful customers. Just as Infowars warned, even the seemingly morally minded food distributors cannot be undisputed. Instead of overlooking moral details, consumers must be aware that grocers profit from the use of moral themes and buzzwords. The aura of sanctity adds another layer of simplification to a complicated process of deciphering food morality, like Hekler’s “gut level” influence and Pinker’s moralization “switch.” Again, the quickness of our judgment invites more overlooked realities about food ethics and creates uninvestigated illusions about the morality of products.

The movement for eating food that is grown and produced locally is motivated by the care for and worry about environmental sustainability.  Therefore, the buzzword “local” has been moralized to signify the ethical way to protect the earth. According to a report from Arizona State University, a majority of consumers believe that the closer the farm, the lesser the negative impact on the environment since less energy and resources are used to transport it. While this reality is true in some cases, most people do not realize the full truth. The carbon footprint from food production depends not only on its travel to the plate but also on the type of food itself. Certain foods are more resource intensive than others and generate lots of carbon during its production, even if it is not transported far away (ScienceDaily). This detail implicates that the label “local” does not always indicate “sustainable.” Consumers who are often blinded by the “sacred” trusted halos around the popular food justice themes do not feel the need to research the complex effects of the issues that sway their moral opinions. The confidence in their moralization overrides this vital step in fully understanding the entireties of moral food issues.

Another unrecognized aspect of the local food conversation has to do with social issues. Buying local food means supporting local farmers. Community members who care for their neighbors find this moral choice as a no-brainer. But the ethical decision about who should be supported is actually much more difficult. Fair-trade products, which are usually produced in different countries, also offer another ethical solution. By buying fair-trade food, customers support workplaces that guarantee the farmers’ decent conditions and fair wage, even in countries where this fairness is not the norm (ScienceDaily). Is it more ethical to support your local community farmers, or the only company who pays its workers a living salary in a developing country? Of course, the answer to this question is not definite or universal. The problem is that the question is not asked enough. People care about food ethics, but they are unaware of the need to make informed decisions in an issue’s depth due to their quick-to-trust attitudes.

In order to correct this fault in our moral response to food ethics, we must understand the process of moral decision-making. The instinctual moral “switch” is a gut reaction rather than a rational process. To better grasp the origins of our “gut level” influence that form our unobjective “auras of sanctity,” we turn to psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt has found five universal moral themes that generate strong reactions from people around the world. Harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity are five aspects that are the basis for instinctual morality. (The Innate Mind). Haidt’s themes are the core of our moral beliefs and can therefore explain why we moralize and prioritize food issues the way we do. From these aspects, our perceived notions of food ethics evolve into the halos and gut reactions that commandeer our decision-making.

These general themes are the starting point for food morality issues. The influence of risk perception in food morality is a clear response to the first theme, harm. People want to avoid harm to themselves, their health, and the environment, so the risks of GMO’s, even if still unproved, are enough to highly affect a person’s opinion. The movements to protect worker and animal rights in food production are motivated by the moral theme of fairness. Community is of course one of the most important moral supports for “buying local,” in order to sustain community farmers. The issue of authority is present in the food justice movements who oppose the spread of restaurant and grocer chains that take over the influence of food production and distribution from smaller start-up farmers and businesses. Lastly, purity is a very important moral theme in food morality. Organic, natural, wholesome, nutritious foods are perceived as pure and clean. Consumers who shop at grocers like Whole Foods hope to avoid “impure” processed or genetically modified products because of an instinctual feeling of disgust. These themes grow to construct the sacredness of our “gut level” perceptions about food ethics and drive our choices in hopes for ethical progress.

Haidt’s five basic moral themes, along with an unchallenged acceptance of an “aura of sanctity” around uninformed moral decisions, make up the basis of the food morality process. These steps are quick, gut reactions in hopes of moral soundness and mostly do not continue on to research and reasoning to make the best decisions. Haidt defines this emotional and illogical reaction as “moral rationalization.” A person begins with the conclusion, which is coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then he works backward in an attempt to justify his decision (The Moral Instinct). By listening only to our first gut reaction and to the influences of unquestioned “halos,” we may not be making the choices that best suite our intentions. Our moral goals are valuable and have the possibility of truly changing food production and distribution. These changes, though, can only happen with the motivation and passion of informed consumers who confidently understand the full implications of their moral food beliefs.

The shocked Whole Foods customers who felt betrayed by GMO products hopefully realized the overlooked illusions and unchallenged acceptances that are hindering their moral choices. In order to make decisions that best reflect our values and priorities, it is important to be aware of this process of morality. To insight effective food justice, we must first spread the recognition of our ethical motivations, the influence of morals in our decisions, and the threatening overconfidence that blinds us from investigation. This awareness can lead to making adjustments in the nature of our reactions to and perceptions about food ethics in an educated way. If we consciously point our instinctual moral reactions to an informed goal, then progress in food justice will indeed be possible.

By Lucille Marshall

Written for University Writing with instructor Lauren Whitehead at Columbia University.

Works Cited

 Adams, Mike. “Whole Foods Caught in GMO Marketing Deception.” Whole Foods Caught in GMO Marketing Deception, False Advertising – Here’s the Proof. Natural News, 8 Oct. 2012. Web. 16 Nov. 2012.             <;.

Arizona State University, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Gut reaction: Morality in food choice.” ScienceDaily, 25 Sep. 2012. Web. 16 Nov. 2012

Carpenter, Mackenzie. “Should Genetically Altered Food Be Labeled?” Pittsburgh  Post-Gazette. N.p., 21 Oct. 2012. Web. 16 Nov. 2012. <;.

“Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).” Nature Publishing Group,n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2012. <;.

Haidt, Jonathan, and Craig Joseph. The Innate Mind. Vol. 3. N.p.: n.p., 2006. Print.Chapter 19: The Moral Mind.

Johansson, Anders. Risk and Responsibility in the GMO Discourse. Thesis. LinköpingUniversity, Department of Culture and Communication, Centre for Applied Ethics, 2003. Print.

Melton, Melissa, and Aaron Dykes. “Whole Foods Caught in False Advertising Scandal.” InfoWars. N.p., 5 Oct. 2012. Web. 17 Nov. 2012.

Napier, T. L., Tucker, M., Henry, C. and Whaley, S. R. (2004), Consumer Attitudes Toward GMOs: The Ohio Experience. Journal of Food Science, 69: CRH69–CRH76. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2621.2004.tb13344.x

Pinker, Steven. “The Moral Instinct.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13  Jan. 2008. Web. 16 Nov. 2012.             <;.

Scicurious. “Wholesome Food and Wholesome Morals: Does Seeing Organic Make  You Act like Jerk?” Science News, Articles and Information | Scientific  American. Scientific American Science News, 12 May 2012. Web. 16 Nov.2012. <;.

Woo, Michelle. “Prop 37, Food-Labeling Measure, Fails.” The OC Weekly. N.p., 7 Nov.  2012. Web. 16 Nov. 2012. <;.


About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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