School of Library and Information Science, San Jose State University
INFO 200-19: Information Communities
Professor Steven J. Tash
May 3, 2020
The Vegetarian Information Community: Seeking Answers
How does humanity survive while letting the environment and other life forms thrive? By studying the behavior of information communities and examining how they use and access information, we can begin to find answers to questions that are increasingly relevant to human health and the survival of life on Earth. What are the health benefits of plant-based eating? An examination of the vegetarian information community (VIC) can help provide answers to these questions. Looking at Everyday Life Information Seeking (ELIS) behavior and its relevance to the VIC via an examination of grocery shoppers’ information-seeking behaviors is another relevant approach to finding answers that can inform library program development and health initiatives and promote the interests of the VIC and plant-based eating. Noting the differences between vegetarian and vegan diets, vegetarians do not eat meat, but may consume eggs and/or dairy. Vegans do not consume animals, honey, or dairy, and eschew animal products of all types, e.g., in cosmetics, clothing, and foods. Mention is made of the future of lab-grown meat, referred to as clean meat.
In this period of uncertainty, we are reminded daily of the power of the internet and social media to connect people to information that can change minds. As author Xigen Li noted, “Contributing information to online communities could benefit a large number of people and have a strong social impact” (2011, p. 281). An online information community “is a group of entities that blurs the boundaries between information seekers, users, and providers,” thereby creating a group whose uniting purpose is to increase its members’ “overall communication and knowledge” (Fisher & Durrance, 2003; Fisher & Bishop, 2015). Using the“information sharing qualities of technology”lets researchers and everyday information seekers connect and find answers (Fisher & Durrance, 2003). Exploring this information community will provide insight into ways that libraries can better serve this growing minority.
We do not exist separately from our environment; we are a part of the ecosystem and are as bound by our physical needs as any other life form on this planet. As the world is shaken by climate change and pandemic, exploring the vegetarian information community can reveal ways to heal the environment and improve human nutrition at the same time. But I also hope that by sharing what I learn, others will begin to see that a plant-based diet is best, for humans and for the ecosystem. How vegetarians and vegans communicate, what information they share, and what the latest research shows, is information worth sharing beyond the confines of this small—but growing—minority of the population.
As an information community, vegetarianism can be approached from many different angles. Whether this community’s information needs are being met, how the Vegetarian Information Community (VIC) interacts with information, and which types of services it utilizes can also be explored through the broader considerations of diet and health. How technology has helped to “overcome trust barriers” is another way to address this topic (Fisher & Durrance, 2003, p. 5). More specifically, how vegetarians find information and how they share it with others in the community is relevant to see if this information community’s needs are being met.
There is a growing interest in the vegetarian diet; many who are drawn to seek information on “going veg” do so for health reasons. Therefore, examining sources people have used to locate health information is a relevant approach. In 2011, authors Percheski and Hargittai note that “research on where people look for health information and whether they look online has proliferated in recent years” (p. 379). The following graph shows types of health information sources and the frequency of use for each source.
By the year 2011, as indicated from the above graph, while family and friends were still heavily relied upon, online sources continued to gain ground, especially when frequency of use climbed (3 or more times per year) (Percheski & Hargittai, 2011, p. 383). For almost two decades, those who sought general health information turned to online sources with steadily growing frequency. While we still rely heavily on our social circles when seeking health information, judging from the data on the graph, we are quite likely to turn to the internet instead, especially if we are asking a lot of questions (3 or more) (Percheski & Hargittai, 2011).
Health Information as ELIS Behavior
Health information seeking can be categorized as Everyday Life Information Seeking (ELIS) (Savolainen, 2017). This ELIS activity has changed over time: a telephone survey from 1979 “showed that three out of four respondents had drawn on their own experiences in problem solving; in addition, friends, neighbors, and relatives appeared to be popular sources.” (Savolainen, 2017, p. 1507-1508). It is reasonable to conclude, based on this information, that most people relied upon those within their social networks to provide help with health-related issues. It is also worth noting that “a study conducted in Sweden demonstrated that in the early 2000s, the Internet had already gained a fairly significant place in the informants’ communication and information-seeking practices” (Percheski & Hargittai, 2011, p. 383).
Unorthodox Information Sources
Plant-based diets have gone mainstream, and easily accessed, unbiased information from trusted websites has contributed to this growth. Kaiser now recommends a plant-based diet—for chronic conditions (including diabetes), to improve overall health, and for weight loss (Kaiser, 2013). Such endorsement from trusted sources removes barriers to adopting a vegetarian diet. Of further interest, a 2004 study from South Australia noted that “vegetarians are generally more in favour of unorthodox sources of health and nutrition information than non-vegetarians” (Lea & Worsley, 2004, p. 19). This study also noted that personal beliefs and existing dietary habits influenced what types of information sources were trusted and utilized, and that vegetarians were “more likely to search for information about healthy eating” (Lea & Worsley, p. 16).
While Kaiser is hardly an “unorthodox” source of health information, interest in healthy eating has a historical component that connects with “information-seeking behaviors of grocery shoppers” (Wimberley & McClean, 2012, p. 176). Grocery shopping and information behaviors have long been intertwined. In 1973, “shoppers opposed to rising meat prices” handed out “leaflets containing meatless menus” (Wimberley & McClean, 2012, pp. 180, 187).
A Scholarly Approach to Grocery Shopping
Although grocery stores and business practices have evolved and altered dramatically since supermarket shopping became ubiquitous, the information needs of shoppers have remained relatively unchanged, even as the ways they use and seek information have evolved (Wimberley, S. L., & McClean, J. L., 2012, p. 176). Grocery shoppers have exhibited consistently similar behaviors over the last 100 years, despite the increase in ways that information can be accessed and is presented. Grocery shopping has been influenced by everything from government standards to societal changes. Irrespective of the size of the store, from small corner shops to huge outlets, the consumers’ information needs have remained fairly consistent (Wimberley, S. L., & McClean, J. L., p. 176). An increase in the variety of sources of information and an increase in advertising have contributed to shoppers’ overall knowledge (Wimberley, S. L., & McClean, J. L., p. 176).
The methods and pathways that grocery shoppers use to share information are also used by vegetarian shoppers. Percheski and Hargittai remarked, “our findings suggest that information sources complement, not replace, each other” (2011, p. 385). Vegetarians are interacting with these information sources through multiple pathways, including by “browsing,” “exchanging,” “monitoring,” and “unfolding,” revealing how vegetarians use and share these complementary sources (Hartel, J., Cox, A. M., Griffin, B. L., 2016). For example, VIC members may browse sites that “contain concentrations of resources related to their interest” (Hartel, J., Cox. A.M., Griffin, B.L., 2016). One such site is hosted by the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG), which has an online archive of their publication, Vegetarian Journal,with issues as far back as 1993.
Discussing the ways that grocery shoppers use and seek information, their information-seeking behavior is further analyzed in a 2015 article concerned with online grocery shopping. The information these shoppers look at and how they find it is discussed (Benn, Y., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P. I., & Reidy, J., 2015, p. 265). Using eye tracking technology, researchers discovered that shoppers prefer to seek products through “virtual departments” instead of going through the process of navigating through the site to reach specific items. (Benn, Y., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P. I., & Reidy, J., p. 266).
Another discovery relevant to the VIC was the conclusion that shoppers tend to overlook important information, preferring to look at images over text: animation also attracted and held viewers’ attention. Since shoppers’ main focus was on the front of packages, placing pertinent health information on the front could lead to healthier choices by consumers (Benn, Y., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P. I., & Reidy, J., p. 266). How information is presented to online shoppers affects what information is utilized. Although shopping for groceries in a store differs in many ways from shopping online, understanding what information consumers use can inform physical label design and be effectively utilized for maximum website efficiency. Just as “the use of labels on product packaging as a means to provide consumer information developed in multiple stages over time,” website design will continue to evolve as further study of grocery shoppers’ information behaviors continues (Wimberley, S. L., & McClean, J. L., 2012, p. 176).
Going Veg: Motivations and Reasons
The interest in adopting a plant-based diet is growing, even though, historically speaking, vegetarians have been a small minority of the population. However, a study from 2017 noted that in the United States and the U.K. alone, there were over 100 million individuals that “exhibit some degree of plant-based dieting” (Rosenfeld & Burrow, p. 456). The authors argue that “investigations into vegetarian motivations are critical to understanding the social implications of food choices” (Rosenfeld & Burrow, p. 456).
Beyond the sources that VIC members utilize to satisfy their information needs, comprehending the reasons individuals may have for adopting a vegetarian/vegan diet is critical to meeting this community’s information requirements. These range from improving one’s health to improving animals’ lives and include mitigation of “environmental degradation” (Rosenfeld & Burrow, 2017, p. 457). This 2017 article by Rosenfeld and Burrow is a focused examination of the motivations and reasons individuals may have for adopting plant-based eating and provides recommendations and methods for researchers to organize and pivot their studies around. This will allow researchers to create a more accurate picture of those who adopt a plant-based diet.
Defining an Information Community: Fisher and Durrance
“Fostering social connectedness within the larger community” the fifth characteristic of information communities, hasn’t always been easy for vegetarians (Fisher & Durrance, 2003). Having stopped eating meat more than thirty years ago, I have encountered very few vegetarians along the way, but the interest and curiosity that others displayed in plant-based eating was genuine. Other than offering my old copies of Vegetarian Times or recommending a visit the Hare Krishna Cultural Center in Los Angeles, there wasn’t much information I could provide. Health food stores served as “information grounds,” such as Full O’Life did during the 1990’s in Burbank, California (Fisher & Bishop, 2015, p. 24). With its small café, exchanging information by chatting with other diners was a method to share and “experience information” (Fisher & Bishop, 2015, p. 24). Asking other shoppers where to source vegetarian products or how they utilized them added to the information exchange, but was informal, ephemeral, and serendipitous. The internet has changed all of that. Vegetarians are sharing, connecting, and collaborating via multiple online channels, “in ways that people perceive as helpful,” and the online presence of vegetarians has continued to grow, making this community a true information community that satisfies all criteria for the definition as set forth by Fisher and Durrance (2003).
Libraries: Filling a Need
Libraries can utilize the scholarly research into grocery shoppers’ information seeking behaviors (discussed above) to see what types of information vegetarians and vegans use and seek out. This can provide the information professional a glimpse into this information community which will help better serve their needs.
Knowing that vegetarians make up less than 2% of the U. S. population, I imagined that libraries would have little in the way of programming and/or support for this community. However, libraries can be catalysts for change, and many healthy eating initiatives include information on plant-based diets. As Soriano, the Biblioburro librarian noted, people with access to books are exposed to new ideas and different ways of doing things (Ayoka Productions, 2009). This can include vegetarian/vegan eating. When members of this information community are supported through library programs, other patrons are exposed to this healthy way of eating. One library in South Garland, Texas hosted an event they called “Cook the Book” (Garland: News Flash, 2019). Participants registered for the event, then cooked a vegetarian dish which was shared at a “buffet-style meal” (Garland: News Flash). Provided by the library, recipes were chosen from Meatless in Cowtown: A Vegetarian Guide to Food and Wine, Texas-Style (Garland: News Flash).
Libraries as Communities
Moving away from the concept of library as “resource,” Madeleine LeFebvre, chief librarian at Ryerson University in Toronto, maintains that libraries are communities (Morehart, n.p.) As the meat-free eating event in Texas has shown, libraries are working to become much more integral parts of their communities. In an article titled, “Moving Beyond the Third Place,” Phil Morehart argued that libraries are extensions of the community: home; work; library (Morehart, 2016). Marie Ostergaard is director of community engagement for Dokk1, a revolutionary community space in Aarhus, Denmark. Ostergaard called the complex “the living room of the city;” the complex also houses the library (Morehart, n.p.).
Libraries are more than static book repositories. The public library of South Garland, Texas, gave its patrons an opportunity to share and experience vegetarian cooking. If libraries become “the living room of the city,” they could provide a space for information communities of all types to connect, share ideas, information, or even a meat-free meal, and perhaps get people to incorporate a plant-based meal or two into their eating routines. It is much easier to get individuals to adopt some small changes, such as eating less meat, than it is to get them to completely change their diets. Libraries can help spread something that members of the vegetarian information community already know: plant-based eating is healthy, tasty, and fun.
The Future of Health Promotion
In a study from 2017, the authors noted that “interest in vegetarianism has been on the rise, with many vegetarian options being offered at restaurants and food services” (Corrin & Papadopoulos, 2017, p. 47). This article is titled: “Understanding the Attitudes and Perceptions of Vegetarian and Plant-Based Diets to Shape Future Health Promotion Programs” (Corrin & Papadopoulos, p. 40). Corrin and Papadopoulos noted:
Attitudes towards a vegetarian lifestyle have been shown to be significantly correlated with nutritional knowledge (Pribis et al., 2010). Knowledge, in the form of scientific information and facts was what drove positive attitudes towards vegetarian lifestyles (Pribis et al., 2010). This was also shown in the reverse, adhering to a vegetarian diet may promote an increase in nutritional knowledge (Pribis et al., 2010). (2017, p. 42)
More than just a diet for “healthy…virtuous…hipster…thoughtful…animal lovers,” libraries and health professionals should take advantage of this heightened awareness of plant-based eating and promote the VIC (Corrin & Papadopoulos, 2017, p. 42).
Information communities are “a recent phenomenon” (Fisher & Durrance, 2003) and the VIC is no exception. Exploring scholarly research related to health information-seeking behaviors of grocery shoppers provided some foundational knowledge on individuals concerned about healthy eating. An article on the information-seeking behaviors of shoppers interested in high fiber foods proved enlightening. The authors studied the differing effects of three different “types of involvement” on individuals who sought information on high-fiber foods or purchased high-fiber foods. The authors posited that involvement affects attitude change and the effectiveness of persuasion, specifically related to individuals interested in high-fiber foods (Quick & Heiss, 2009, p. 253). The researchers conducted short surveys at a booth set up in a grocery store. Shoppers filled out a questionnaire after being shown two soups cans whose only labeling differences were the inclusion of the statement “high in fiber” on the front, and fiber content in the nutrition analysis on the back label. The study noted that people “are motivated to pay attention to, to process, and to seek additional information about messages on topics they believe are likely to have an impact on their goals or lifestyle” (Quick & Heiss, 2009, p. 256). This is worth noting, as many people who become interested in vegetarianism are motivated by health concerns.
Health concerns continued to present opportunities for background research. Identifying the shortcomings in the availability of healthy foods in U.S. supermarkets, a study from 2016 examined the link between substandard nutrition and the growth of “supercenters,” i.e., large stores like Wal-Mart (Taillie et al., 2016, p. 82). As “potential agents for improving nutrition and preventing obesity,” the authors argued that supercenters are “a source of daily energy” that influence the diet and nutrition of millions and hold a unique and “pivotal position between food companies and the public” (Taillie et al., pp. 82-83). As I explored the small Texas library’s healthy-eating initiative, I noted connections: a 2006 study concluded “that in 2 rural counties in Texas, the food available in mass merchandisers may [have] be[en] less healthful than that available in grocery stores or supermarkets” (Taillie et al., p. 84).
Health concerns provided further answers to queries that would be of concern to VIC members. A meta-analysis conducted by Wang et al. (2020) in which 2,654 “possible citations” were narrowed down to 14, all reached a similar conclusion: that tofu consumption, at the very least, does not contribute to breast cancer risk (p. 1). This is a subject of concern to many, as the links between diet and cancer become increasingly studied and identified.
Eating less meat is a better option for humanity and the overall ecosystem. Finding new ways to produce it, lab-grown meats (also called clean meat) may hold the key (Schaefer, 2018). G. Owen Schaefer is a research assistant professor in the Center for Biomedical Ethics in Singapore; he argues that “clean meat could make our daily eating habits more ethical and environmentally sustainable” (Schaefer, 2018). Plant-based meat substitutes could bridge the gap while factory farming is phased out and lab-grown meat is developed. Libraries could help educate patrons about the advantages of plant-based meats—and the growing possibilities of clean meat.
The beliefs and eating preferences of vegetarians and vegans may become more widely examined and influential. Plant-based eating is more than a diet for the “unhealthy, weak, insane…freak” (Corrin & Papadopoulos, 2017, p. 42). Unfortunately, the VIC and “those who consume a vegetarian diet can still be subject to ridicule and negative stereotyping” (Corrin & Papadopoulos, 2017, p. 42). Fortunately, libraries and information professionals will continue to fight ignorance—with facts, research, and community-supportive programming.
Ayoka Productions (2009, Sept. 15). Biblioburro: the donkey library. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?1=&=&v=wuTswmx9TQU
Benn, Y., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P. I., & Reidy, J. (2015). What information do consumers consider, and how do they look for it, when shopping for groceries online? Appetite, 89, 265-273. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2015.01.025
Corrin, T., & Papadopoulos, A. (2017). Understanding the attitudes and perceptions of vegetarian and plant-based diets to shape future health promotion programs. Appetite, 109, 40-47. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2016.11.018
Garland: News Flash. Cook the book—vegetarian style at the South Garland branch library. (2019, Oct. 22). City of Garland, TX. http://garlandtx.gov/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=1498&ARC=1016
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Schaefer, G. O. (2018, Sept. 14). Lab-Grown Meat: Beef for dinner—without killing animals or the environment. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/lab-grown-meat/
Taillie, L. S., Ng, S. W., Popkin, B. M. (2016). Global growth of “big box” stores and the potential impact on human health and nutrition, Nutrition Reviews, 74(2), pp. 83-97. https://doi-org.libaccess.sjlibrary.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuv062
Wang, Q., Liu, X., & Ren, S. (2020). Tofu intake is inversely associated with risk of breast cancer: A meta-analysis of observational studies. PLoS One, 15(1), 1-14. | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0226745
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The Vegetarian Resource Group. https://www.vrg.org/journal/index.php#vj2007