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You are what you eat: religion and morality's influence on food choices

Study finds that many moral foundations play a role in what foods people choose to eat

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"Do our beliefs dictate what we eat?" Illustration published on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.

A recent study shows that religion and morality often impact what foods people buy. 

The online study with answers from over 1,700 participants across the U.S. found that among both religious and nonreligious contributors, morality played a role in food choices.

Researchers from ASU, the University of Wyoming and Oklahoma State University conducted a series of experiences to judge how one's moral values affected the types of food they consume.

For example, one experiment prompted participants to rate how religious they are and then choose either an organic or gluten-free fruit cup. The experiment found that tose who described themselves as highly religious favored the gluten-free option.

Richie Liu, an assistant professor of marketing and international business at Oklahoma State University, was involved in the study and he said that these findings could greatly impact the way businesses advertise to their audiences. 

"If you're looking at Chick-fil-A, for example, they might want to change the way they advertise depending on the geographical location they're in," Liu said. "If a restaurant is in a more religious area, they may look away from marketing those sustainability-focused foods." 

He also said that ranking the scale of religiosity was an important aspect of the study because it offers insight into the level of religious identity compared to the foods people eat. 

Don C. Benjamin, a faculty associate in the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, said that food and religion are more closely intertwined than most people think. 

“Religion and culture and worldview are all synonymous, and a big part of how we select our identity is through the foods we eat,” Benjamin said. “They remind us who we are.” 

Benjamin also said that while some people may use religion to expand or limit the foods they eat, the symbolism of the food is often more important. 

“If you’re a Christian and you recall the Last Supper, eating bread and wine may take on a more symbolic meaning," Benjamin said. "As a Christian, you may be more drawn to those foods because they represent you.” 

Another experiment focused on the connection between religiosity and moral foundations and gluten-free, allergen-free or organic food. Moral foundations were split into five categories: care, purity or sanctity, fairness or proportionality, loyalty or in-group, and authority or respect.

The study found that the moral foundation of care drives participants to prefer more sustainable foods whereas purity drives diet-minded foods.

Joan McGregor, a professor of philosophy in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and  asenior sustainability scholar, said that awareness plays a large part in what people choose to eat. 

“More and more people are becoming aware of the horrible conditions that we raise our animals in and the factory farms where we load animals into small areas where they can hardly move,” she said. 

McGregor said she chooses to eat foods that do not cause great harm to the planet, animals or workers in the food industry. 

James Edmonds, a graduate teaching assistant in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, said that the way people approach food impacts how they live their lives. 

“Food in different traditions and religions is treated in different ways, but always with respect,” Edmonds said. 

Additionally, he said religion also establishes a sense of community centered around food.

“I was walking down the streets of Indonesia during Ramadan, and a stranger came up to me, grabbing my belly and asking why I wasn’t fasting,” he said. “We laughed about it, but it was really interesting to see firsthand how religion and those experiences can bring people together.” 

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, but was republished on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020 to correct an error in the headline.

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