Recently, a couple in Chapel Hill, N.C., got married in a Whole Foods Market. The newlyweds, Ross and Jacqueline Aronson, described it as the culmination of a dream romance that blossomed during arm-in-arm walks through the aisles of organic produce and goodies, plucking dewy fresh ingredients for the gourmet meals Ross likes to cook for the two of them.
I've never been to Ross and Jacqueline's Whole Foods or, for that matter, any Whole Foods that matches the scenes they describe. I mean, I'd like to see a couple try to stroll arm-in-arm through the tightly packed, mazelike produce aisles of a Chicago-area WFM, but it would be a foot race to see who'd take them out first: Clueless Dude With a Giant Backpack; Angry Man Who Wants That Last Bunch of Broccolini; or Lady Whose Life Does Depend on Going First.
Whatever – Ross and Jacqueline's Hallmark-scripted, organic-fueled love would doubtless be cast asunder. In, like, 2.5 seconds.
It's not that we're especially mean here. It's just that all that organic shopping ... it does things to people. In the kind of life-affirming scientific breakthrough that makes sense of one of life's frustrating mysteries, Brown University and Boston College neuroscientist Rachel Herz has documented a weird link between buying organic stuff and behaving like, um, a selfish jerk.
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"There are two (negative) effects" associated with organic products, Herz says. "One is to undermine healthy eating behavior and diet. And the other is how being exposed to organic branding can undermine our interpersonal behavior."
Herz's new book, "Why You Eat What You Eat" (W.W. Norton & Co.), is full of fascinating stories about the intersection of food, the choices we make and neuroscience. In it, she discusses the research that revealed the tie between organic goods and behavior.
In one study, people who were given pictures of apples labeled "organic" to look at proved much more judgmental and condemning of others when asked to make moral judgments about behavior, versus people who had been shown pictures of comfort foods. When those same groups of people were asked to volunteer a few minutes of their time, Herz says, the organic apples group "volunteered half as much time as people who had looked at desserts."
Organic branding, it seems, triggers one of humanity's less noble emotions: moral superiority.
"The bottom line" says Herz, "is that sort of as a function of the moral superiority associated with organic branding, people feel somehow, 'I'm above reproach and, paradoxically, therefore I can be less ethical and more selfish.' " Moral superiority has a long, dark history.
"It's partly where the religious crusade concept comes from," says Herz. So it's weirdly reassuring to realize this is the emotion driving a lot of the behavior at a store with parking spaces that are as hotly disputed as parts of Afghanistan. Does science explain the infamous Whole Foods parking lot?
"Anecdotally," Herz says, "absolutely. People are feeling more self-interested, that 'me first' thing, then they come out of the store thinking, 'I've got to get out of here quickly!' I see this kind of thing being totally accentuated, just from my own observations."
All this knowledge has turned Herz into a careful shopper, and she has some simple advice for how to be someone who loves organic without hating humanity.
"My whole point is that you may never have realized these things are impacting you, so beware. I double-check myself, 'Is this making me actually feel differently?' " She also notes that it's important to check that the organic products you're buying actually support the health goals or belief system you're applying to your food choices.
Organics often get a halo effect – we think of them as virtuous, then translate that to "healthy." In fact, of course, "the term organic doesn't say anything about health or content," Herz says. "It's strictly about production."
In general, Herz says, if it's your health or the health of the planet that has you buying organic, you need to take a closer look at what you buy. "I'm not a fan of 'big brand' organic," she says. "There are all kinds of issues that come into play when you're buying something from mass production."
Herz suggests you're better off skipping Whole Foods and, if possible, buying your organic produce from a local farmers market. Where, hopefully, couples won't be getting married in the aisles. Or divorced in the parking lot.