Is Fake News or Misinformation Hurting Your Food Business?

Some Insights into Why and What to Do About It

By Dave Lundahl

A dramatic trend in food behavior today is the popularity in “free-from” foods.  Growing in the US at 7% annually (Euromonitor, 2016) this category includes food product labels claiming to be “healthy” due to the sparsity of ingredients on a statement. Underlying this trend is general distrust, especially among millennials, of claims used by food marketers.  They are also skeptical of our government to protect consumers from foods and ingredients they perceive as unsafe.  These same consumers are being exposed to more and more fake news and misinformation about food.

Is there a connection between food fake news or misinformation and this free-from trend?

As social media increases, so has the rise in false statements such as “coconut oil has a positive effect on cognition and focus” and “The FDA said Frosted Flakes are healthier than avocados” tend to spread like wildfire. These statements hurt food businesses.  Many consumers perceive these statements as fact regardless of their lack of scientific basis.  Might the free-from buying and consumption trend be rooted in these exposures, impacting how consumers think about and share information about food?

InsightsNow launched a research project to explore these questions. Specifically we designed the research to:

  • Identify links associating digital media behaviors to food attitudes and aversions.
  • Understand millennials, those consumers who have grown up in a world immersed in media full of food misinformation.
  • Identify segments of millennials who differ in reacting to food fake news or misinformation.
  • Determine how susceptibility to food fake news or misinformation impacts emotional reactions and avoidance behavior to food ingredients when consuming foods for breakfast.

Some Initial Insights from this Research

Insights we gained from this research fell into the following four themes.

#1 – Food fake news or misinformation is at the root of the “free-from” food trend.

We conducted social media research to understand how and why misinformation is spread.  We followed a thread called “parmesan-gate” to show how fast a simple, fact based post about a law suit against a small cheese company can change into something very different.  In this case, 52.9M “Likes” were posted from social media posts by six major news networks decreeing that the food industry puts wood chips into your parmesan cheese.  The social exchanges that followed showed patterns of anger and sarcasm directed at the food industry.  This thread help us develop a framework to start understanding why consumers buy into misinformation and share it.   The rising tide of shared content on social media and the internet includes more and more fake or misleading information. Social networks are emotional, not necessarily informational, networks. Various motivations for sharing were found ranging from makes users feel they are helping others, being part of a shared experience, or allowing for frustrations to be vented.   These learnings provided a basis for fielding some quantitative research to characterize who is most susceptible to food fake news or misinformation and to associate this susceptibility to both sourcing and sharing behavior and well as to food ingredient avoidance behavior.

#2 – Not all millennials are alike – some are much more susceptible to food fake news or misinformation than others.  Those more susceptible had different behaviors in sourcing and trusting content from various digital and traditional media, and differed in criteria used to make food choices.

Many millennials were found believing as true false or recently circulated false statements about food.  We discovered a segment comprised of 50% of our sample to be most susceptible. These individuals were no different in education, income or household size.  Susceptible people were more apt to rely on digital sources, including Facebook posts and food blogs like Food Babe, for food information than those who were not susceptible. In part, susceptible people also made food choices based on various “free-from” claims in opposition to those who were not susceptible who made choices based on cost-value and convenience.

#3 – Susceptible consumers were more apt to respond emotionally in avoiding various ingredients typically used in foods they normally consume in the context of different moments.

When making choices, susceptible people had much stronger emotional responses to ingredients normally used by the food industry.  In the context of breakfast moments, 82% of susceptible consumers had negative emotional avoidance reactions to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) versus just 16% among those not.  Other ingredients such as gluten were equally avoided by about 28% of consumers.

#4 – Susceptible and non-susceptible consumers differed in making rational tradeoffs in what ingredients they avoid in different kinds of moments.

The ingredients from foods chosen in the context of different breakfast moment impacted the tradeoffs that susceptible consumers make.  Susceptible consumers had less of an emotional avoidance reaction to ingredients such as MSG and partially hydrogenated oils when consuming a grab and go breakfast product than one chosen for a regular breakfast at home.  Further, susceptible consumers were much more accepting of products with higher levels of salt in a grab and go moment.

Some Initial Recommendations for the Food Industry

The food and beverage industry faces many challenges in refuting misinformed points of view. Direct attacks to refute often are ineffective.  Therefore, care must be taken in how to refute and how products are designed to be accepting amongst those susceptible to food misinformation.   So, what are we to do?  Below are a few initial recommendations to consider.

  1. Reduce fears by creating new associations in the minds of consumers susceptible to food misinformation. This can be done through marketing communications to associate feared ingredients to what is already familiar and found naturally in unprocessed foods.
  2. Use alternative ingredient names, rather than chemical nomenclatures. For example, 9% of consumers in our study were fearful of the ingredient “dihydrogen monoxide,” which is water.
  3. Create messaging that associates ingredients with benefits that consumers value. Example is the claim of “gut health” from the addition of “kombucha culture” on the ingredient label or a perception of “energizing” or from an energy bar that claims “high in protein.”
  4. Create new knowledge for R&D teams by applying behavioral research techniques to understand how to design products more accepting by more consumers. Apply these techniques to understand what food ingredient associations exist so that you can leverage these associations to design new foods that are desired, not feared.  Use this new knowledge to improve the design of your ingredient statements and in making product claims on packaging.
  5. Develop rapid digital response processes to refute misinformation. Technology today enables the creation of rapid detection of food misinformation that can impact your business.  Apply behavioral science into how misinformation is refuted to be more effective.  This includes avoiding traps such as confirmation bias (where consumers accept content more readily fitting their prior held points of view) or disconfirmation bias (where consumers reject content different from prior held points of view).  Avoid calling out the source of misinformation to not reinforce the perceived credibility of the source.

 As CEO of InsightsNow, Dave Lundahl drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company’s associates in providing actionable insights to innovators and marketers interested in understanding how to influence or respond to change in consumer behavior. _________________________________________________

We hope you found this interesting. Please feel free to comment below OR share this post on your own social media feed, adding your thoughts and opinions on the topic. Tag us and we’ll continue the conversation with you there. Follow Dave on Twitter @DaveLundahl or reach out to Dave directly at dave.lundahl@insightsnow.com.

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