Why some consumers trust moms more than the FDA

A new report from the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) suggests that the most trusted sources for news about food-safety issues are not government scientists but moms. Specifically, Americans increasingly rely on what the report calls “mom scientists” for their food-safety intelligence.

What’s a mom scientist? According to CFI, a nonprofit funded by the food industry, these are mothers (or sometimes fathers) who may or may not have a science background and who speak openly about their opinions through interviews or blog posts. For instance, Mayim Bialik, an actress who has a neuroscience degree and has attracted a following with her views on attachment parenting, homeopathic cures and veganism, is a mom scientist. Jenny McCarthy, the celebrity who has no discernible scientific training but who nevertheless caused a media maelstrom by expounding on her belief that vaccinations can cause autism, would also be considered a mom scientist. And then there is the Food Babe, who is “hot on the trail to investigate what’s really in your food.” Her blog attracted just shy of 795,000 unique visitors in July, according to Comscore’s last estimate.

CFI’s report, “Cracking the Code on Food Issues: Insights From Moms, Millennials and Foodies,” used a Web-based survey to test food-related messaging and determine how much trust various readers put in common sources of information. The 2,005 respondents (all from the U.S.) were divided into three groups: moms, Millennials and foodies. All three of these groups have a lot of buying power and influence when it comes to food-information dissemination.

The CFI researchers chose two issues, genetically modified ingredients in food and antibiotic use in animal agriculture, to test in their messaging. Each respondent received articles on these issues from three different “voices”: a mom scientist, a federal government scientist or a peer (a person who shares your interest about food).

“The data shows mom scientist was the most trusted source of information before respondents read any stimulus information,” the report says. “As respondents were exposed to more information from the three different voices, trust in mom scientist remained strong and the trust scores rose consistently for government scientist. The peer voice ultimately dropped to the least-trusted source of information in most scenarios.”

All three respondent groups said that websites are their preferred sources of food information. For their second choice, the mom group said they turned to family (not online) while Millennials and foodies said they looked to real-world friends. Local TV stations, online friends and food-specific TV programs or networks fell into the third and fourth categories as trusted food resources for all three groups.

“We’ve seen the rise of individuals online providing information” that they’re not qualified to speak authoritatively on, says Dr. Benjamin Chapman, a food-safety professor at North Carolina State University. He attributes the preference for mom scientists to the desire to hear from fellow human beings. “Consumers may be looking for answers and information, but the FDA or local health departments are large, unnamed and faceless,” he says.

So instead, people turn to the warmer websites and the familiar faces of bloggers who have made a name for themselves. That is how, Chapman says, the Mayim Bialiks and Jenny McCarthys of the world have come to be trusted more than the FDA, at least by many Americans.

Chapman says research such as the CSI trust report has radically changed how he and his colleagues disseminate food-safety information. He still encourages consumers to read online reports with a skeptical eye, looking out for a lack of peer-reviewed data or anecdotal tales not linked to real data. But even more importantly, he says, he and other scientists no longer try to share their research without contacting those with the most clout.

“We have to go into the community to look for trusted nodes of information,” Chapman says.