A shifting perception of responsibility for healthy diet makes food policy political touch point

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Source: iStock
Source: iStock
A significant shift in the percentage of Americans who now believe society, rather than individuals, hold primary responsibility for choosing healthy food to promote wellness and prevent disease is mirrored by an increase in people who believe food policy issues should be addressed during the presidential debates, according to new survey results. 

FoodMinds’ fourth “Food Temperance in America” survey of 684 opinion leader shoppers – or those who are registered to vote and express their food values in the grocery store and in their politics – found 52% of respondents believe food companies, government, the health care and education systems and other parts of society are primarily responsible for making the right food choices.

This is up a significant 15 points from six years ago, when only 37% of respondents placed the burden of primary responsibility on society rather than the individual, according to the survey.

Even among Republican respondents, who traditionally are more likely to say individuals are responsible for their actions, “there has been some erosion in just saying it is up to the individual”​ and a shift towards more societal systems, said Bill Layden, founder and executive vice president of FoodMinds, which consults on food and nutrition.

The majority of those who do not place responsibility with the individual instead give it to the US government at 17% -- up from 12% in January 2010. This is followed closely by 14% who say the health care system is responsible and 14% who say food companies are, according to the survey.

The motivation for change

While the survey did not address the motive behind Americans’ shifting view, Layden suggested to FoodNavigator-USA that “a strong hypothesis is you are looking at a compilation of six years of Michelle Obama and her Let’s Move! campaign,”​ which encouraged Americans to exercise, eat healthier and teach their children about nutrition.

“Arguably, she has done a tremendous job raising awareness, and you have major shifts with the food and beverage companies changing the composition of foods to make them healthier,”​ partly in response to the Let’s Move! campaign, he added.

Support for government intervention up

Obama’s campaign, as well as a larger ongoing conversation around food policy among consumers, also could explain why the study found a “sharp uptick in Opinion Leader Shoppers’ support of government intervention”​ to limit consumption of unhealthy foods with 56% voicing this opinion in September compared to only 46% in April 2012, according to the campaign.

While Republicans and Democrats voiced varying levels of approval of government intervention to limit unhealthy food, they vary sharply in which measures they deem appropriate and effective, the study showed.

Democrats are more likely to “strongly favor”​ regulation to label genetically modified food (50% versus 42% of Republicans), define natural (57% versus 42%), overtly identify bad foods to avoid (44% versus 25%) and to prevent manufacturers from making health and nutrition claims on packaging (41% versus 23%), according to the study.

Layden also noted that Republican shoppers are more likely to “adamantly oppose taxes to shift consumption” ​and more likely to support the idea of limiting food stamps – now known as SNAP benefits for foods.

Perception of obesity epidemic waning

Even though more people now pin responsibility for healthy eating on the government and are more open to government interventions to address obesity and promote wellness through diet, the study also found that the perceived level of intensity surrounding obesity issues has waned since the last election cycle.

For example, only 55% of survey respondents say they heard or read a lot about the increasing number of Americans who are unhealthy because they are obese compared to 69% in January 2010. Likewise, 36% said in September they heard a lot about government more tightly regulating health and nutrition information compared to 38% in January 2010.

Food policy is fair game for presidential debate

Despite the dip, the numbers show that awareness about food as a cornerstone of public health and the policies surrounding it remains a major concern for many Americans.

This also is reflected in the majority of survey respondents who said that the presidential candidates should discuss food policy issues during the debates leading up to the election.

Specifically, the study found 76% of Democrats surveyed said food policy should be a debate point and 50% of Republicans agreed.

Layden explained that food policy issues now are rising above the city and state level to become an issue for the presidential candidates because they speak directly to core American values.

“Food is central to quality of life and healthy living and to some extent diet risk factors are the key driver, beyond tobacco, for health promotion and disease prevention. So, to some extent, the overall population of health of the United States … does rise to the level of what will keep the country secure and prosperous not just for this generation, but for future generations,”​ he said. 

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