Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

People Who Buy Organic Foods are Meaner

By Magdeline Lum

Does buying organic food make you more judgemental, and why is it better to fart on a plane than hold it in?

The beginning of a new year heralds resolutions and goals of self-improvement. These are often centred on improving health, and one method is to eat healthier accompanied with an exercise regime. Everyone would agree that eating healthy food leads to improvement in well-being, and some advise eating organic foods.

Organic foods are often products that boast ethical and environmentally friendly practices. A/Prof Kendall Eskine of Loyola University asserts that these claims are coupled with moral terms like Honest Tea, Purity Life, and Smart Balance, and has found that people who eat organic food can make people more judgmental and less altruistic than those who do not.

Volunteers in the study were told that they were part of two unrelated studies, one being a consumer research study on food desirability and the other being a moral judgment task. The participants were divided into three different groups. One group was shown pictures of food explicitly labelled as organic, including apples and spinach, and another group was shown pictures of comfort food like brownies and cookies. The third group was the control group shown foods that were neither organic nor comfort food.

The volunteers ranked the foods according to their desirability and were then asked to pass judgment on a variety of moral transgressions. Situations included a politician accepting bribes, a lawyer prowling hospitals for potential clients, and a student stealing library books. The results showed that participants who had viewed pictures of organic food judged the issues more harshly than others.

“One of my lines of research focuses on what I consider to be ‘everyday cognition’, and food represents a perfect example of this,” Eskine said. “In particular, the organic food industry has significant implications for health, culture and psychology, and in many cases foods can act as containers of meaning that transcend their physical properties.

“The results could have turned out either way, but I was honestly hedging my bets on the moral licensing approach, according to which people feel licensed to act less ethically when their moral identities are made salient,” Eskine said. “Organic foods, like other green products, seem to help people affirm their moral identities, thus generating counterintuitive behaviours.”

These findings complement a 2010 study published in the journal Psychological Science, “Do Green Products Make Us Better People?”where researchers found that people were more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing “green” products.

Farts on a Plane
The convenience of flight travel has come with modern discomforts. Cramped seats, close proximity to strangers, recirculated air, limited meal options and in-flight flatulence. Of these discomforts, one is immediately within our control: to break wind or not to break wind? Numerous news columns and blog posts have discussed aeroplane etiquette advising us to be refrain from doing so or to do so in the toilet, and now a group of Danish and British medical researchers has weighed in – advising us to let it rip.

They argue that since high altitude air pressure is lower than the air pressure at ground level, gases in the abdomen will increase in volume as an aircraft reaches flight altitude. It is akin to a helium-filled balloon increasing in volume as it rises through the atmosphere. Luckily for us, the human body is much more resilient than the balloon.

The researchers state that holding back would have significant drawbacks for someone on a plane, such as discomfort, bloating, indigestion and heartburn. There are also physiological responses to holding back, including elevated blood pressure and pulse, and reduced oxygenation of the blood. This can be serious for people at risk of cardiovascular complications. With these factors and risks in mind, the scientific advice to is flatulate in flight.

However, the advice to let it go only applies to passengers and not to pilots. For pilots, it is much more complicated. The researchers in the study stated: “On one hand, if the pilot restrains a fart, all the drawbacks previously mentioned, including diminished concentration, may affect his abilities to control the airplane. On the other hand, if he lets go of the fart his co-pilot may be affected by its odour, which again reduces safety onboard the flight.”

Air quality was considered by the researchers, who suggested the use of activated charcoal to neutralise the odour. The charcoal should be embedded into the seat cushions and blankets on the aircraft. It was also suggested that passengers could take a proactive approach by placing activated charcoal in underwear, but it was noted that this would be difficult for passengers wearing G-strings or wearing no underwear at all.