The Morality of Food and the People Who Eat It

What goes on in your head while you watch someone bite into an organic apple?

The Essentials

When it comes to how we view food, it’s rarely just about sustenance. In fact, we as consumers ascribe morality to others based on the food choices they make, says Brent McFerran of University of Michigan. We evaluate each other on a sliding scale depending on income: wealthy individuals choosing organic food are perceived as significantly more moral than the rest of us, while those with low incomes are perceived as significantly less moral.

At the Queen’s School of Business Conference on Moral and Ethical Issues in Consumer Decision Making, McFerran presented findings from five studies he conducted with colleagues Jenny Olson (University of Michigan), Andrea Morales (Arizona State University), and Darren Dahl (University of British Columbia).

In this video, McFerran discusses how an individual’s personal income level and food choices jointly shape how other consumers judge his or her morality, and the implications for charitable organizations and public policy makers.

Video Highlights

0:42 — Background on the morality of food: What is considered “good” and “bad” food. 

3:50 — Research questions: Do we ascribe morality differently based solely on food choice? Do we have beliefs about who should be eating certain foods? If so, what are the consequences?

4:11 — Study one: Participants given a shopping list of someone earning $25,000 or $85,000 a year, and asked to ascribe characteristics of the shopper.

6:42 — Study two: Similar study but adding organic foods to the shopping list.

9:15 — Study three: Food prices, in the form of discounts, are added to the mix.

10:15 — Study four: Is the perception of low-income individuals improved if they are purchasing quality foods for their children? Not really.

12:20 — Study five: What are the consequences for charities? A charity providing food to low-income individuals was judged more harshly and raised fewer funds if it used donations to purchase organic versus conventional food. 

Alan Morantz