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News & Media: Staff Columns

Americans and food: It's complicated

Tuesday, March 14, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Lauren Brey, director of marketing and research
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If you thought America was divided over the recent presidential election, it turns out there’s also a wide gap among us on a variety of food-related issues.

The Pew Research Center recently conducted a survey of Americans’ attitudes toward genetic modification, organic food, the importance of eating healthfully, and more.

While most Americans report placing a high priority on healthy eating, their views on the benefits and risks of GMOs and organic foods differ. The 99-page report dives deep. Below are a few highlights.

Many Americans don’t know much about GMOs and are skeptical of scientists on the topic.

The study found that most Americans say they know “only a little” about GMOs. Many are also unsure about whether genetically modified foods are better or worse for health.

Public awareness of this food is all over the board, with 29 percent of Americans saying they have heard a lot about GM foods, while 19 percent have heard “nothing at all.”

The public’s view of scientists and scientists’ understanding of the health benefits  and risks of GMOs are mixed. Most perceive that there is not broad scientific consensus.

Americans are more trusting of information on the safety of these foods when it comes from scientists and “small farm owners” (no definition of “small”) than they are of information on this topic from politicians, news media or the food industry.

Taking a broader view, the public is still skeptical of information from scientists regarding GMOs. An important differentiator: People who have more science knowledge are more inclined to trust scientists to give full and accurate information.

People are divided over how much they care about genetically modified foods, and their eating choices tend to be linked with their degree of concern.

Only 16 percent of U.S. adults say that they care “a great deal” about the issue of GMOs, while 37 percent say they care “some” about the issue. Thirtyone percent do not care too much, and 15 percent do not care at all.

What people choose to eat tends to be linked with their degree of concern about GMOs. For example, 31 percent of people who frequently consume organic food care a great deal, compared to just 6 percent of those who eat little organic food.

Notably, women are more likely than men to care a great deal about GMOs. Based on demographics and education, there are only minor differences in concern about the issue. Political affiliation does not relate to level of concern.

People have mixed expectations about the likely effects of genetically modified foods.

Many Americans express both optimism and pessimism about potential consequences of GMOs. Much of the public expects that these foods will increase the food supply. A majority also says the foods are very or fairly likely to result in more affordable food.

On the other hand, about half of Americans say environment and health problems will result from GMOs.

It is interesting to note that more men expect positive effects, while more women expect negative effects. Additionally, those who have high science knowledge are more optimistic about potential benefits. Education is closely linked to science knowledge and shows a similar pattern.

Organic is popular for food-focused and health-conscious Americans, but they still consider cost.

The research also looked at Americans’ views about organic foods and their consumption habits. The study found that 55 percent think organic produce is better for one’s health than conventionally grown produce. It was noted that the science behind this is unclear. Also, many Americans buy foods based on labels, whether that is locally grown, ingredients or nutrition, organic, or GMO-free.

People who categorized themselves as “focused on food” in the survey are more likely to buy organic and GMOfree foods. Also, younger adults (ages 18-49) are more inclined than older people to consider organic produce better for health.

Most Americans say the price of organic food compared to conventional food is a factor in whether they purchase organic. Even those who frequently buy organic foods are sensitive to the cost to some degree.

The study also covered topics like how Americans judge their own eating habits, food allergies, vegans and vegetarians, and more. To read the entire report, “The New Food Fights: U.S. Public Divided Over Food Science,” visit

About the Pew Research Center

Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan organization that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. Pew conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis and other data-driven social science research. The group does not take policy positions.


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