The Good Dirt on Fruits and Vegetables

There is an expression, “knowledge is power”. But the power of knowledge pales compared to the power of emotion.

While the power of positive emotions should be helping to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, well-intentioned (but misguided) activists occasionally try to smack fruits and vegetables with powerful negative emotions.

Case in point: The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes an annual report called the Dirty Dozen.

The report lists the 12 fruits and vegetables (FV) with the highest levels of pesticide residue. This widely circulated list warns of a nonexistent threat these FV present and along with fear, generates the powerful and dangerous emotion of disgust.

Disgust is dangerous

Disgust is powerful, and dangerous because once created, rightly or wrongly, it is hard to deactivate. I would suggest that EWG is doing consumers a great disservice by activating it.

Disgust is a particularly dangerous emotion to play with because, as the psychologist, Paul Rozin, observes, it has “magical contagion properties”. It easily, and permanently, passes from one object to another through simple exposure. This contamination can either be physical, or much more potently, psychological.

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman credits Rozin for observing “that a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches.” (Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow).

This contagion property is a fundamental feature of human nature and very hard to counteract.

In a study of attitudes toward GMOs, Rozin and his colleagues found that feelings of disgust predicted what they call “absolute moral opposition” toward genetically modified foods. This absolute moral opposition involves an insensitivity to scientific evidence, and a lack of interest in fact-based arguments about risks and benefits. In other words, disgust hinders the ability to think critically about an issue.

The Dirty Dozen & Disgust

Hindering critical thinking may not be the EWG’s intent, but it may be an unfortunate side effect of their campaign.

EWG acknowledges the importance of eating fruits and vegetables: “We recommend eating produce from the Dirty Dozen list rather than foods or snacks that are not as healthful such as fat, sugar or additive-laden processed foods”. That message will be powerless in the face of the much more potent associations of disgust.

Indeed, researchers at Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) Center for Nutrition Research found that The Dirty Dozen list may discourage the consumption of any fruits and vegetables – whether organic or conventional. Research conducted at John Hopkins found that among low-income individuals, “The issue of organic can swamp or compete with other messages about nutrition”.

Combatting Disgust

Nutrition communicators may be able to neutralize disgust by creating associations with the natural processes of modern agriculture, and by using the strong moral case for improved access to fruits and vegetables. Essentially, this involves combatting disgust with positive emotions. But it’s not easy. As Rozin noted, cherries lose their appeal as soon as the thought of a cockroach enters the mind, and it’s hard to shake that image.

In sum, low fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with a variety of negative health consequences. EWG’s activation of disgust and fear will not help raise the already low levels of fruit and vegetable consumption in the United States. Agriculture, like all industries, needs appropriate regulation and appropriate media scrutiny, to ensure safe and sustainable practices. Disgust-mongering, on the other hand, is counter-productive.


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