Foodie Underground: Will More Information Make Us Better Consumers?


There’s no denying that the internet age has brought us a wealth of information. However, how well our brains retain all of that information is up for debate; just because we have access to data around the clock does not mean that we’re processing it and putting it to best use.

Read Write Web recently wrote about how consumers stand to benefit from that increased amount of data as it relates to food.

Food safety is the primary concern of consumers. Yet according to an IBM report, only 1 percent of foods entering the U.S. are inspected. The report further states that imports make up “nearly 60 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S. and 75 percent of the seafood.”

Data about where food was produced and how it has traveled would increase consumer confidence about food safety. Given the choice of two similar food products, but one has more data about how safe it is – as a consumer, which would you choose? That’s an opportunity for food companies to gain an advantage over their competition.

With more data at their disposal, what they do with it will certainly determine food companies’ competitive advantage. However, these advances do beg the question: will we pay attention and will it change our eating habits?

There are plenty of individual sites set up to collect data and track what we eat – Read Write Web cites Health Month and TweetWhatYouEat – which point to individuals’ desire to eat healthier. In getting people excited to really think about what they eat, sites like these are encouraging people to become more conscious consumers, which ultimately translates to healthier palates. On the flip side however, we face the problem of information overload.

Think of the nutrition facts that find their way onto practically everything we consume. When was the last time you paid attention to how much vitamin A and C your granola bar contained? And if you did consider those percentages, did you also consider how much high fructose corn syrup was involved? In an effort to get us to think more about what we’re consuming, too much data can be overwhelming and it can also easily take the focus away from what we should be doing if we’re wanting to be healthier consumers: seek out natural, whole foods that haven’t traveled six times round the world to make it to our plate.

Yes, the day that we can scan a food item and learn whether or not it’s gluten or lactose-free and where exactly it came from, we’ll all have the tools to make smarter eating choices – but will we use technology to replace common sense?

Ask anyone on a diet of mostly vegetables, grains and locally produced meat and they’ll probably tell you that they never bother with labels. They know exactly what’s in their food and where it came from. The need for food data is only necessary in a society dependent on food produced in a research lab, with complex combinations of things like modified corn starch, sodium benzoate and yellow 5. (Note that until I found an old bag of Swedish fish and some electrolyte tablets, I had a very difficult time tracking those down in my pantry).

I’m all for supporting more accountability and transparency in the food industry, but ultimately, we all need to start taking some personal responsibility and teaching others the value of eating the kind of food that we can confidently identify what it is and where it came from. That comes from talking to the people who grow your food and getting the rest of your community inspired to do the same, and no amount of data is going to do that for us.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground. Each week, Anna will be taking a look at something new and different that’s taking place in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to culinary avant garde.

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.