Do Organic Consumers Shop Exclusively at the Jerk Store?

A new study examines the connection between organic food marketing and anti-social behavior.


“Is that USDA organic or Oregon organic or Portland organic?” asks a character played by singer Carrie Brownstein, one of the stars of the great IFC network sketch comedy Portlandia, in a widely loved restaurant skit from the show’s first episode last year.

“It’s just all across the board organic,” the server responds before excusing herself.

When she returns a moment later, the waitress shares with the diners a pamphlet of information about the chicken before presenting its “papers” for inspection. This helps her to fill in the pretentious would-be diners on the life of “Colin,” who as its name suggests actually was a roosterâ€"which makes the joke even funnierâ€"before it came to star as an entrée.

Kendall J. Eskine, a psychology professor at Loyola University New Orleans, calls the Portlandia skit “very funny, to say the least.”

Eskine knows a thing or two about the links between thought, self, other, and eating. His body of research focuses on “how our everyday embodied experiences shape our cognitive architecture.”

His latest paper, "Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments," looks at whether people exposed to organic food marketing are so self-satisfied that they are less likely to express empathy toward others.

Extrapolating from existing research on “moral licensing” that found a negative relationship between altruism and salient moral identity, Eskine theorized his research would reveal “that those exposed to organic foods would help less and make harsher moral judgments compared to those exposed to non-organic foods.”

Indeed Eskine's latest research, published last week in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, pegs organic consumers as anti-social jerks. Or at least those are the sort of stark terms that the press has used to frame Eskine’s research.

And while at least some segment of organic consumers has been painted as pretentious and elitist since even before Dave Barry was cracking timely Windows 98 jokes, Eskine says that lumping his research in with such anti-organic digs misses his point.

“I’m not arguing that organic food itself is making people harsh judgers or non-altrustic,” he tells me by email. “What the data suggest is that mere exposure to organic labeling can be enough to lead people to affirm their moral identities, which in much past research can lead people to act unethically later.

“This research points to the idea that its marketing might entice people to affirm their moral identities,” Eskine says. “I think it’s important for eaters of all types to be mindful of their decisions and try to extend their altruism beyond mere food purchases.”

But if people have misunderstood his point at times, it may be because Eskine’s paper appears to conflate “organic foods” with “organic marketing,” and to focus more on the former than on the latter. The word “label” also appears just once in the paper.

Not surprisingly, some critics have pounced on the study. Its research “methodology was utterly ridiculous,” writes Martin Cizmar, a Portland writer and author of the so-ironic-it’s-not-ironic-it’s-ironic book Chubster: A Hipster’s Guide to Losing Weight While Staying Cool.

Another critic calls Eskine’s methodology “demented” forâ€"among other claimed faultsâ€"its small sample size. But in the next sentence that same writer goes on to belittle the integrity of the five-dozen or so anonymous undergraduate students who Eskine (like many academic researchers) used as research subjectsâ€"saying undergrads are “not exactly known for the tensile strength of their moral fiber.”

Even though that critic’s argument was stillborn, the Eskine study does appear to have limitations.

For example, while this is the first study to look at “organic foods [that] are often marketed with moral terms (e.g., Honest Tea, Purity Life, and Smart Balance),” the link between moral marketing and organics here is tenuous. According to the Smart Balance website, for example, only two out of 33 Smart Balance products even use the term “organic” in their marketing. That means consumers can still attach a level of “smart”-ness to themselves when buying non-organic Smart Balance purchases.

Eskine calls this a “tricky question” and says he’s “currently designing a study to test this exact question.”

Given the heated food rhetoric I see every day, it’s no surprise that writers and bloggers have labeled Eskine everything from a “stooge” to a “troll,” and given rise to the inevitable claims that Eskine is a corporate plant or some sort of Johnny Monsantoseed.

So who did fund the study?

“I received NO funding for this research,” Eskine says, “and it’s disheartening when everyone assumes otherwise.”

But Eskine must hate organics, right? Strike two.

“I regularly purchase organic foods and do not think they make people ‘jerks,’” he says. “I regularly consume organic food and believe it is the environmentally and ethically superior choice when one has the resources and access to such products,” he adds.

Organic consumers may not be jerks, but it’s just as true that we can’t all afford a Colin in every pot.

Baylen J. Linnekin, a lawyer, is executive director of Keep Food Legal, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates in favor of food freedomâ€"the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, cook, eat, and drink the foods of our own choosing.

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  1. I like to use the term “Smug Diet”, which I’d define as people who think their food choices are more virtuous and insist on trying to impose that virtue on everybody else.

    I can’t believe it’s been over a year since the following discussion, where I responded to somebody who started his post with the words “Without judging people”, and pretty much immediately implied his moral superiority.

    1. Yesterday I heard someone talking on the radio saying that, at some time not long ago, the CEO of Whole Foods had come out as a libertarian, which led to calls for a boycott against the store. I must have missed this? I only recall him promoting his company health plan as an alternative to Obamacare.

      1. He came out as a libertarian years ago. This is a classic:…..singlepage

        1. Don’t forget the “Hey Mackey” flash mob!

  2. I’m tired of groups trying to chane the meaning of a word to suit their political agenda.I have never eated any inorganic fruits,veggies or meats no matter what these smug idiots say.If you need to change a wods meaning your lying about your motives.

    1. Guess I can’t type with out coffee

      1. “without” is one word


    2. I think you have to leave the land of the living and recently living edibles to get to inorganic. Kind of funny how the Organic crowd has a war on sugars, a group of organic molecules.

      1. And fat ,progressives are so worried that someone will have unapproved food,drink and smoke and some one[self enployed persons] will let them do it.So they introduce smoking bans,limits on salt and mandate food lables and calorie postings.They do not trust people to live as they see fit.I rather have a fun shorter life [including cigars,stout and prime beef],then a long ,boring one eating bean sprouts.

        1. Not quantifiable. You bad boy, you!

      2. Organic is basically any carbon based substance or compound. So you’re absolutely correct.

    3. …I have never eated any inorganic fruits,veggies or meats…

      Never had AM-Pms Taco on a Stick or Pizza, eh?

    4. Organically grown mostly refers to the pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and/or fertilizers that are used. Many of these are not, in fact, organic compounds.

      You are right, though, that the term “natural” (rather than a product of a chemical company) foods would have been a better choice.

      It was probably already taken.

      1. I’m not aware of a single pesticide that isn’t an organic compound.

          1. Banned in 1988.

            1. So, I guess I had a few tablespoons full. Oh well

    5. “If you need to change a wods meaning your lying about your motives.”

      *Places gold star on mybarber*

      1. For example, “classical liberal.”

  3. Anyone who would attach their eating habits to their moral compass, short of being proud of not eating babies (even though babies are really good when fresh off a 12 hour shift at the monocle factory), can be safely disregarded from every conversation.

    1. Wouldn’t human baby eating be the ultimate in environazi cuisine? It reduces the population, is organic, super carbon footprint points, etc.

      1. I only eat babies from free range mothers.

      2. In theory, but I feed my infant formula (which, according to some organic foodies, is a crime punishable by death) and my 5 year old chef boyardee. Hardly organic.

        That said, I do not begrudge someone from eating organic. Most of the produce I buy is organic, as is my garden. I think its simply tastes and smells better (though even that may be a jedi mind trick). It’s the intermixing of eating organic with being a more moral person that bothers the fuck out of me. It’s fucking food, and it’s hardly more moral to insist that everyone eat food grown in a way that would insure the death of millions because organic growing methods and the amount of waste due to insects etc simply cannot keep up with the current population. But then again, to organic fucktards, that’s a feature not a bug.

    2. Right, but then there is a whole market out there for baby oil. That really disgusts me thinking about where they got that oil. How can people use that stuff?

  4. Do organic consumers shop exclusively at the jerk store?
    Gave me a craving for free range shrimp.

    1. Gave me a craving for some good jerk chicken.

    2. You know that American shrimpers tout their shrimp as “wild-caught” versus “farm-raised”, right?

  5. Yay, a weekend article about how shitty hipsters are.

    Kennedy didn’t write it so it probably won’t get too many comments.

  6. Penn Teller did an episode of Bull$#!+ where they served canned food, day old food and food from a convenience store, to people at a “fancy” restaurant. It was all hidden camera and the people that were shown on the episode raved at how good the food was. With some people it is all about perception and not actual quality. They want to believe they are better so they pretend they are better.

    1. Of course they edited out all of the responses where people said, “I dunno, kinda tastes like del Monte green beans to me.”

      … Hobbit

    2. What proprietor of a fancy restaurant in his right mind would have allowed him to do that?

    3. Penn and Teller did one on organic food too. They were at a Farmer’s market and they did taste tests with organic produce and regular produce. Every time, the shoppers chose the regular produce. The shoppers were surprised, admitted their biases, but said they would still purchase organic food.

      1. Not surprising; the organic culties that I know don’t buy it (primarily) for its taste.

      2. I liked their show about bottled water.

  7. I saw an episode of Portlandia where Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols had a cameo. Boy, did that guy let himself go!

  8. Shouldn’t this be one of those eclectic NPRRR Marketplace stories? Really, what’s this doing here?

  9. I’ve seen these academic hit jobs against conservatives – I’d need convincing that this study is any more rigorous, but the article doesn’t actually go into much detail about it.

    Anecdotally, I imagine there’s evidence many jerks eat organic, but I doubt it’s the marketing that turned them into jerks. That is, if there were not organic foods, they would channel their jerkiness into some other channel.

    1. Isn’t that one of the points in ‘advanced’ Marxism, that we don’t do or buy anything unless we see an ad for it? Something about commercial culture something something.

      1. I would hypothesize that some marketing campaigns appeal to the consumer’s inner jerk – an inner jerk which would exist even without the marketing.

        1. Oh, I am in full agreement. Certain bright marketers tapped into that inner jerk in the organonauts the same way car companies tried to tap into the inner jerk with the Prias.

          1. Marketers can’t create jerks, they can only exploit them.

          2. There was a South Park episode where everyone wanted to drive a “Pious”.

    2. Spend a half hour shopping at Berkeley Bowl (truly the greatest grocery in the US), and I defy you to come away with any impression other than, “Jesus, liberals are amazingly angry people.” You might not even make it past parking before you come to that conclusion.

      1. Yeah, and the customers are jerks, too! ;^)

        Seriously, I swear the Berkeley Bowl is doing their damnedest to drive their customers into shopping at Andronico’s: you’ll pay the same high prices for the same snooty food, and your good manners will be reciprocated by the employees.

        1. BB’s produce is way better and cheaper than Andronico’s. More varied than anything this side of Les Halles. But dealing with the other customers there… holy shit. I always love getting flipped off by someone in a Prius with a “Visualize World Peace” bumper sticker.

          1. I run into the same thing at the Boise Co-op in Boise’s liberal North End. They have some great food, but also some seriously hostile people. At first I found it odd that people who claim to be so caring treat people so badly, but it started to make sense when I realized two things:

            1) Liberals don’t really care about doing the right thing and getting results. What they really care about is that other people see them trying to do the right thing. This is why bumper stickers are so prevalent among that crowd.

            2) Liberals are conditioned to not see people as individuals. They want the government to protect the collective “society,” and they don’t care how many members of that society have to be harmed to protect it.

            Once you acknowledge these two things, it all kind of makes sense.

            1. Look up the Daily Show clip about the battles in some NYC Co-Op:

  10. This helps her to fill in the pretentious would-be diners on the life of “Colin,” who as its name suggests actually was a rooster?which makes the joke even funnier?before it came to star as an entr?e.

    I was once in a seafood restaurant where they introduced the lobster as, “This is Joe, he’ll be your dinner tonight.” The wife got all upset. It was hilarious.

    1. Genetically engineered to boil itself and enjoy it, just as the cow in Restaurant at the End of the Universe is engineered to cheerfully shoot itself.

      Anyway, I think they’re coming up with ways to grow meat in a lab without the preliminary step of killing an animal.

      1. “Joe had a hard day, so we’re going to draw him a hot bath – oops, well, on the plan B.”

        (joke adapted from the Simpsons)

      2. Anyway, I think they’re coming up with ways to grow meat in a lab without the preliminary step of killing an animal.

        They are.

        But I won’t be an early adopter. I’ll let the market sort that out before I go there.

        As an aside, I wonder how political vegetarians would respond to test tube meat. Most are vegetarians because of how they perceive animals as being treated. If you take that out of the equation, where will their objection lay (for surely they’ll have one)?

        1. At least one project is being sponsored by PETA, so good on them.

          1. Fuck PETA

        2. I’d be tempted to try lab-created bacon. I’m a life-long vegetarian and that’s the only meat whose smell ever tempted me.

  11. I’m a pesco-palean.

  12. It’s my observation that most people who pride themselves in not being judgmental about sex simultaneously pride themselves in being judgmental about food. Most people have to make a sacrament out of some bodily necessity, and whether you are Team Red or Team Blue is what determines which side you take.

    1. Interesting.

      It’s more general than that, though.

      People want to feel righteous (correct). People who are righteous become judgmental (i.e. jerks).

      Luckily for Reason, there is no self-righteousness among libertarians, and that’s why there are no jerks here.

      I mean, except for Sevo, Brutus, wareagle, Suki, Eduard van Haalen, Spartacus, mad libertarian guy.

      Hey, other than your detractors, are there any non-jerks here?

      I mean, even this article seems like it was authored by a guy who is a bit of a jerk.

      1. Can you be self-righteous if you espouse a philosophy that is the antitheses of self-righteousness?

        I mean, the whole point of libertarianism is to live life the way you want as long as you aren’t violating others’ property rights.

        Progressives forcing others to use only approved foods (NYC) or approved products (LA) is far more self-righteous than someone stating that you have no right telling someone how to live their life.

        This goes for social conservatives forcing their morals upon the rest of the country.

        Sounds like someone’s just butt hurt about being wrong.

        1. Nope, no self-righteousness among Libertarians, at all, it must have been a non-libertarian who wrote:

          Sounds like someone’s just butt hurt about being wrong.

          Someone seems to be confusing being self-righteous with espousing a theory of anti-self-righteousness. I’d say, there’s probably nothing a person could get more self-righteous about, in the universe, than that.

          1. There isn’t any “self-righteousness” in your quote.

            What I do see though, is someone trying very hard to make others look self-righteous.

            You’ve failed though.

            1. What I saw was someone defending themselves with the argument “I can’t possibly be self-righteous, because my philosophy is against imposition on others.”

              It’s not really a valid argument, but, to top it off, they finished with “You’re wrong.”

              The ultimate in self-righteousness.

  13. It would seem the critics of the research may be evidence for its conclusions.

    1. Yeah. “College kids don’t have morals” probably wasn’t the smartest defense.

  14. I don’t often long for the “good old days” but I do long for the days when it was considered ill-mannered to comment on other peoples food choices.

  15. And sometimes, when talking to libertarians, I sort of wish for the days of revolutionary fervor, when people with really gross ideas were tarred and feathered for their beliefs.

    Not really, of course, but I just wanted to point out that the “good old days” include a lot times with much less politeness than we have now.

    Unless you know someone who was actually kidnapped, even for a joke, for their food choices.

  16. Libertarians tend to be open, but emotionally steady. Liberals are also open, but tend to be neurotic, that is, have a tendency to experience negative emotions easily.

    1. How about this: Liberals are vain. Their sense of morality is shot through with vanity, and the blend of the two produces an amalgam of self-righteousness.

      “Moral”-type ads that bring out the jerk in people are really inflaming vanities about moral conduct.

      I don’t want to go too Biblical, but a struggle session with the book of Ecclesiastes helps with the old vanity. It’s a pity that Ecclesiastes wasn’t a remorseful government planner.

      One thing about a government debt crisis: it’ll be a Bonfire of the Vanities.

    2. [citation needed]

  17. The sef-satisfied is spot on and to fail to see it makes you deny the. No different than the Prius driver. Saving humanity in a vehicle that has a worse ecological cost than four Casilac Escalades and caustic and highly posit nous dead Li-ion batteries after about six years.

    1. The sef-satisfied is spot on and to fail to see it makes you deny the reality in front of you.

      It is no different than the Prius driver. Saving humanity in a vehicle that has a worse ecological cost than four Cadillac Escalades with caustic and highly posionous dead Li-ion batteries after about six years.

  18. “I regularly consume organic food and believe it is the environmentally and ethically superior choice when one has the resources and access to such products.”

    Wow, what a jerk.

  19. Being liberal means one has made up ones mind and is therefore always right, about everything. Kind of anti-social.

  20. Even though that critic’s argument was stillborn, the Eskine study does appear to have limitations.

  21. I used to joke about the eggs at the local store that came from vegan fed chickens. I would say, “Yeah, vegans are annoying, but feeding them to chickens seems a little harsh.”

    The organic foodies didn’t think it was funny.

  22. The argument here seems to be that eating food labeled organic might make you feel like you did something good, and therefore you might not do something else good.

    I don’t buy it.

  23. Looks to me like the author of this study (or perhaps the interpreters of it) confused people with product. By that I mean that we all know from many studies that the rich tend to have less empathy than everyone else. It’s also true that you are not likely going to see them eating at McDonald’s or buying cheap junk food at the grocery store. Of course they are going to buy the best available. That happens to be organic.

    Who wants to eat mass-produced food that has been laced with synthetic herbicides and pesticides in addition to being harmful to the environment when there is much better available? It’s also true that until recently organic has been more expensive than that produced by conventional industrial agriculture (thanks to supply and demand the price is now nearing or equal to conventional). So that meant that more rich were eating it than poor. Thus the association between organic and snobbery. But it’s a false association. The attitudes of the rich are the problem not the food they eat. It’s like saying that there is something morally wrong with any pricey product one buys.

    I tend to think that the average Trader Joe’s customer for example is much more empathetic, more justice minded than average.

    Course we know that when all else fails the smear of last resort is that old “liberals are elitist” canard. It’s dishonest. It’s manipulative.

  24. Some people eat and buy organic due to dietary restrictions/issues… Some of these issues may have been caused by GMOs and may have left a person with intestinal issues that are painful, uncomfortable, and very difficult to live with (once triggered by GMOs, those issues rarely go away, and things like GMO soy (even when cooked) have 5 times the allergen protein as non GMO soy? scarry)… Those issues tend to make a person very cautious about what they eat…

    Some people are clueless about those issues and it can be extremely frustrating for someone with dietary issues… Especially when the general response is to dismiss someone’s concerns as them being pretentious or a royal pain in the butt because they want more information about the food they may or may not consume. I can see some people thinking they have an attitude… But perspective is all it takes to alter that perception from that hippie is an organic fanatical pain in the rump to empathy for a fellow human being who is suffering. I’m not saying that is always the issue, but for some it is and that really needs to be included in any research like this.

    But then you have the pretentious pricks like me who buy organic because I am so much better than anyone else and damn it, I deserve better produce and food than any of those other schmucks running around? Because I am worth it!!! LOL 😉

    1. I’m curious, what specific dietary restrictions or issues do you see as caused by GMOs?

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