Sociology of the Natural Food Industry

A White woman buys food from an organic food stall. The seller is an Asian woman of colour

An article on how large corporations get away with labelling food as “natural” was passed onto me by one of my former clients (first published by 2DayFM, now taken down). It makes me think about the importance of the social science of food. It’s sociologically interesting that the article appears on the blog of a popular radio show in Australia, but the article is hardly scientific. Nevertheless, it does have very good links to follow up, and I’ll discuss these issues with respect to empirical research. The fact that the article appears on a radio station blog aimed at a mass commercial audience makes me reflect on my work as a research consultant.

On the one hand, the article represents how consumer awareness of food products has become a social movement. On the other hand, my prior life working with the public as a consultant to businesses has shown me how the public’s need for health and nutritional information is a confusing and fraught process for ordinary people. People who aren’t trained to read research critically pass on information and act on advice by non-experts with a popular following.

My post today explores each of the claims in this popular article. I use a sociology of food to place the “natural” food movement into socio-economic perspective. I end with a reflection of how I used the sociology of public health perspective to inform my work with clients in mass communication with large consumer audiences.

How “Natural” Food Labels Work

The aforementioned article focuses on American food labels, but these have international impact as these products are exported around the world. The article points out that that companies can add artificial food enhancers through various tricks of the trade. These are misleading because of the elastic use of the word “natural.” For example, artificial sweeteners are added to orange juice. When these sweeteners are blended with an extract derived from orange oil the juice can still labelled “natural.” What’s the problem here? The additive has been chemically processed and then added back into the orange juice.

White bowl with oranges against a black background

Companies can also add MSG to food and not label it if it’s made from yeast extract. What’s more, they get to call this food “natural” because yeast is a naturally occurring agent. It is obvious to marketers that there is a vast fortune to be made by capitalising on the “natural” food movement. Consumers find it difficult to understand food labels, but using the term “natural” makes people feel happier about their consumption choices. At the same time, research shows that food buzzwords like “natural” in food labels in general are confusing.

An Australian study finds parents of children who suffer from anaphylaxis don’t always know what foods are safe to eat. “Precautionary” wording such as “may contain traces of” and “may be present” can be tricky to interpret.

The Australian and New Zealand governments introduced a 5-star food labelling system to help consumers make better nutritional choices (although the dairy industry is resisting the model).  Food labelling models in other Western nations like the UK and USA have not been as effective as legislators hoped. In the UK, a voluntary “traffic light” labelling system has been controversial in terms of its proposed effectiveness. Under this system, high calorie foods with low nutritional value are given a red label, food with high nutritional value are coloured green and those in-between are coloured orange. There is no incentive or legal push for companies to comply with this label and consequently, if used ineffectively, this is unlikely to aid consumer choices.

In the USA, research shows that women in general are more likely to read and act upon food labels, while men from most socio-economic groups do not pay much attention to food labels. While the everyday convention leads people (and marketers) to presume that women make the majority of food purchase decisions, this gendered trend is not good news.

First, women are not always present when men buy meals; second, it is not women’s responsibility to monitor men’s health choices; and third, the research shows that other social trends influence how food labels are read and understood.

Mexican-American men and men from Latin backgrounds in the USA tend to read food labels more closely than White Anglo-American men. This suggests race and gender have an intersecting role on food literacy.

Health & Environmental Impact

Other companies bleach cherries and then add corn syrup. The health risks of bleaching food is probably obvious, but corn syrup is a sly one. It’s technically a “natural” product, as it’s made from corn, but it’s one of the worst products on the market. It makes food addictive – companies use it instead of adding sugar to get around labelling their food as junk. Corn syrup is not broken down properly by our digestive systems, so it negatively impacts our collective health. Unfortunately, it’s virtually in every food on supermarket shelves. When the corn used to make the syrup is genetically modified it can also lead to organ failure, such as findings of the corn manufactured by Monsanto.

Close-up of corn field

Whether corn syrup (also labelled as fructose) is worse for your health than sugar has been hotly debated, but rest assured both are no damn good in high quantities. Yet the problem is exacerbated for poor people. Food psychologist Brian Wansink argues that in the current market, only the rich can afford to switch to better diets. He says that alternatives to corn syrup currently look grim:

I’m frightened to think what the unintended consequence would be of going back to cane sugar as a sweetener for everything.”

Then there are the devastating effects on our planet. Mass producing the ubiquitous corn syrup means producing and using a high number of pesticides. These are polluting water supplies, they make it harder for other plants to grow in nearby areas and the whole process requires a high use of energy which creates further pollution.

The article also discusses cellulose as a “bad” food additive. It’s added to cheese and many other processed foods  to make the texture smooth. The article refers to it as “wood pulp,” but in fact cellulose is found in most plants and vegetables. While there’s no known adverse effects to adding cellulose to food, we do know our bodies don’t gain any nutrients from it, so it makes you feel full but you gain no healthy outcomes. So the problem becomes that if it’s added to junk food, you feel like you’ve eaten a good meal, but your body is not gaining proper sustenance.

Cultural Meaning of “Healthy Food”

Red and pink food colouring is made from cochineal extract, which is made from ground up insects. Depending on where you’ve grown up, your immediate response might be “yuck” or “so what?” What we consider “food” is culturally sanctioned. That is, our socialisation tells us what types of things are allowed to be seen as food, and what is not. The idea of “taste” is part of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls “distinction“: what we do, say and eat, speaks to our culture and class. So while eating insects in one culture is perceived as shocking, in other cultures it might be seen as a delicacy (but not necessarily eaten every day!).

The point about what putting insects in food and calling “natural” has another dimension. It’s about the process of producing these additives, the marketing of the foods they’re put into, and what it means for our health. In recent years, the sales of natural colours have overtaken the sales of artificial food colouring. This is amazing news in many ways, as this decline is driven in part by growing consumer awareness of food additives. Rachel Wilson, Principal Technical Advisor at Leatherhead Food Research, says:

The drive for natural food formulations will endure in the global food and drink industry as consumers continue to seek simplicity and purity in food and drink ingredients lists.

This particular trend is encouraging, as it shows the power of consumers. At the same time, as with the example of cochineal, the mass produced food industry finds way to label food as “natural” which creates a false impression of health. Natural doesn’t necessarily mean “better for you.” Neither does “organic” for that matter. Organic food may be free of industrial pesticides, but this doesn’t automatically make the product more nutritious.

Organic doesn’t necessarily mean “better.” This food may or may not be better for the environment. If it’s produce that’s grown by local farmers in an ecological friendly manner, this is certainly fantastic. If it’s food that’s mass produced internationally and then flown to other places there is more than just the carbon foot print to consider. For example, supermarket chains see there’s a profit to be made from organic products, but they want to keep costs down. So they set up shop in nations such as Mexico, where they can exploit local farmers. Moreover, they wreck havoc on local irrigation, making access to water for other farms more expensive and difficult.

How the Sociology of Food Can Help

Social science researchers have shown that food industry lobby groups have a high degree of political influence on how societies come to think about food. The edited collection A Sociology of Food and Nutrition by John Germov and Lauren Williams shows that the food industry has considerable impact on international discussions of “food scarcity” and national dietary advice sanctioned by Government. Large supermarket chains also narrow consumer choices when they dominate the local availability of affordable food.

How we think about and publicly discuss food has been coloured by food industry. This applies to everything from eating meat (usually conceived as a masculine aptitude)  to debates about breastfeeding. Ordinary people don’t often stop to think about how we consume and regurgitate information. Science literacy is an important skill, which unfortunately, popular media often gets incorrect. Thankfully, social scientists can bring this expertise to conscientious companies who want to work sustainably and those who strive to improve public health.

My consultancy work involved ‘translating’ academic research to improve how businesses communicate with their customers. For example, I created social media images and marketing campaigns with scientific information and advice. I also used science to support the philanthropic activities of clients, such as to provide advice on which companies and individuals to partner with. The key to this work was brevity (keep it short and engaging) and story-telling. The public will remember stories, so it’s important to tell interesting but factual annecdotes, in order to spread informed ideas about food and to encourage people to think critically about food.

Learn more

My other articles on food and science literacy:


This article was first published on 19 November 2016. I’m republishing on my blog as I collate my various writings onto my website.