As morally minded food consumers, we like to believe that we make our decisions about our food with guided attention to its impact on our health, our earth, and our community. We stop by our local farmers’ markets, support organic-oriented grocers, and veer away from risky processed foods in hopes of bettering our bodies and our environment. While our efforts reflect our moral conscience, we still may not always be making the best decisions to represent our ethical intentions. We may not be taking the full strides of morality that are necessary to succeed in our goals.
InfoWars released a video in October 2012, exposing Whole Foods for selling unlabeled products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The majority of consumers were shocked by this deceiving reality. A respected market leader in the organic movement managed to squeeze GMOs past the ethically charged costumers who support its “natural” vision for food produce. Even Whole Foods fans, who care about their food and its morality, were caught unaware of the details and underlying realities of their shopping choices. Why did this happen to us? What does it say about the accountability of our morality? And, more importantly, how can we make sure it doesn’t happen again?
Psychologists discovered a “halo” around foods that are perceived to be healthy or moral. Sanctified buzzwords like “natural” and “no artificial flavoring” attract such a halo, helping people to make quicker, trusted choices about their food based on a gut level moral reaction. Consumers often form this halo 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 becomes associated with it. We lose our inquisitive motivation and instead rely on a seemingly moral passivity.
For many, an unquestioned faith was placed in Whole Foods. “Nothing Artificial—Ever!” is just one of the declarations in Whole Foods’ advertisements. Of course, this claim cannot possibly be true, since the GMOs in some of the store’s products are most definitely artificial. The problem with our “halos” is their tendency to blind us from the complexities and hidden truths about our moral food decisions. From its use of these buzzwords in slogans and mottos, Whole Foods and its entourage are left unchallenged and unquestioned by the majority of its faithful customers.
Food justice awareness is becoming more popular around the country, and numerous companies advertise in hopes of attracting ethically considerate shoppers like us. Grocers and food distributers profit from the use of moral themes and buzzwords, and this allows for many consumers to be misled about their decisions. A product like low fat yogurt is a perfect example of such a case. The food industry spreads the idea that all yogurts are healthy, when often what we buy is actually sugar-packed and heavily processed. Even the moralized word “natural” is not as trustworthy as it seems, since there are no regulatory standards to label a food with this “holy” buzzword. Without investigation, we rely only on our passive instincts and our trusted “halos,” which too often permit misconceptions to sneak by unnoticed in the especially tricky market environment.
So what is the next move? Many of us are lobbying and protesting for new label regulations, such as the initiative for Proposition 37 in California that would have required the labeling of GMO products. Perhaps our food decision mistakes are due to faulty labels, to deceitful companies, and to profiting buzzwords. Perhaps if we could regulate all of that, our problems would be solved. I disagree. I believe the issue resides deeper in our own personal thoughts, motivations, and actions. We choose to trust the buzzwords, to buy the yogurt, to sigh in relief at the word “natural.” We choose to ignore the disillusions about the real impact of our food when it requires too much research. Our morality is good intentioned, but we are lazy. True morality, on the other hand, is an active effort. Even if Whole Foods were to label their GMOs properly, we would still be coaxed into a passive, ineffective morality. This passivity is the danger we face in the future of food justice progress. If we defy it, we will own our responsibility for an accountable, pure morality.
Fellow morally minded food consumers—it’s time to challenge, to question, and to investigate. We can no longer enable such inaction and laziness to negatively represent our ethical intentions. Even the seemingly wholesome stores and markets cannot be left undisputed. It’s time to end our trusting habits that overlook details and create illusions about the real morality of our food. Our moral goals are valuable and hold the possibility of truly lessening the harms of food production and distribution. These changes, though, can only happen with the passion of informed customers who confidently understand the full implications of their food choices, despite Whole Foods’ deception and other common label lies. If we consciously point our instinctual moral reactions to an informed goal, and if we harness our morality in responsible action, then progress in food justice will indeed be possible.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for University Writing with instructor Lauren Whitehead at Columbia University in the city of New York.
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. <http://www.naturalnews.com/037467_Whole_Foods_marketing_fraud_GMO.html>.
Melton, Melissa, and Aaron Dykes. “Whole Foods Caught in False Advertising Scandal.” InfoWars. N.p., 5 Oct. 2012. Web. 17 Nov. 2012. http://www.infowars.com/whole-foods-caught-in-false-advertising-scandal/
“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. <http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/scicurious- brain/2012/05/21/wholesome-food-and-wholesome-morals-does-seeing- organic-make-you-act-like-jerk/>.