Public understanding of food matters

In 2017, MSU introduced a new initiative called Food@MSU that is designed to bring people together to discuss critical food topics that shape the way we eat and live – from food access to food waste.

Food Literacy and Engagement Poll

As the nation’s first land-grant institution, Michigan State University boasts hundreds of food experts who focus on topics ranging from agriculture and business to packaging and nutrition.

Together with our enormous MSU Extension network, we are discovering new research and technologies shaping the way Americans eat and the future of food. But for all of that to matter, consumers must be part of the conversation.

Today less than 2 percent of Americans live on farms as the population continues to move away from rural areas into cities and suburbs. As a nation, we are more removed from agriculture than ever before, yet we still depend on farmers and food producers to sustain our communities.

Leaders in MSU AgBioResearch have recognized that scientists tend to do too much talking and not enough listening to the questions and concerns of consumers. To have an impact on the global food system, and to foster trust and mutual understanding, that needs to change.

In 2017, MSU introduced a new initiative called Food@MSU that is designed to bring people together to discuss critical food topics that shape the way we eat and live – from food access to food waste.

We launched a series of round table conversations across Michigan, called Our Table, to listen to the questions and concerns of community members and bring experts with different perspectives and experiences into the conversation.

To inform our research, as well as the topics we address at Our Table, we knew it was important to figure out what consumers understand about the relationships between what we eat and our world.

To learn more about national attitudes on food, we launched MSU’s Food Literacy and Engagement Poll – the only academically rigorous regular survey reporting on consumers’ food-related knowledge and opinions.

The poll provides an impartial and authoritative public perspective on food. We measure consumer opinion on a variety of food-related topics (such as food labels, food access, sustainability, and trust in food experts) to measure what Americans already know and where they have gaps in their knowledge.

Every six months, Food@MSU surveys more than 2,000 U.S. adults age 18 and up online. The data are nationally representative based on U.S. census demographics, and what we learn informs our work with scientists, farmers, policymakers, business leaders and the public to create long-term, real-world solutions.

The initial findings of the poll over three cycles have already revealed a huge disconnect between food and the American public. For example, 51 percent of respondents said they rarely (less than once a month) or never seek information about where their food was grown or how it was produced.

Yet food shapes our lives on a personal level, while consumer choices and agricultural practices set a course for our collective future. We have also learned that more than one-third of consumers (37 percent) do not know that all foods contain genes.

Given there are already policy conversations going on about complex topics like labeling foods that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, it’s notable that our survey reveals the American people have been largely left out of the conversation.

The majority of respondents also said food labels affect their buying decisions. Sixty-five percent reported that they look for “natural,” the term most sought after among a list of options offered in the survey. “Clean” and “low sodium” tied for second place at 59 percent followed by “organic” (53 percent) and “location of production” (50 percent). Roughly half indicated they looked for “nonGMO/ GMO free” (49 percent) or “smart” (40 percent), while just over a third search for “gluten-free” (36 percent).

Some of these words provide vital information that can affect our health, while other terms are essentially meaningless. The poll also offers some insight into how Americans feel about food scientists.

Over half (52 percent) of those surveyed said they trust academic scientists, 49 percent trust government scientists, and just 33 percent said they trust industry scientists. Consumers often turn to social media, family and friends for information about the health and safety of food.

MSU’s Food Literacy and Engagement Poll has already revealed several areas where Americans are confused and misinformed about agriculture and health. We will continue to track public attitudes that will guide our research, as well as allow us to listen and respond to consumers through the Our Table discussions in order to help all of us make informed decisions about food.

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at or call 517-355-0123.

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