(Jan. 28) SALINAS, Calif. — Pretend for the moment that you're an ordinary consumer, looking at side-by-side photos of two ears of corn.

Chances are, you won't be able to say which is organic and which is conventional. Or which has been genetically modified and which hasn't.

But place a picture of someone who gets his 5 a Day and exercises next to a couch potato addicted to junk food, and the difference is clear.

But how much of what consumers think they know about their food is actually true?

Probably not as much as producers would like, said Steve Schimoler, president of the Research Chefs Association and general manager of culinary business development for Sysco Corp. Because consumer perceptions affect food sales, it’s important to understand them, he said.

On Jan. 21, Schimoler participated in a panel discussion called “Is the Customer Always Right? How Consumer Perceptions Shape Our Food” in the third of four agricultural forums this season at the National Steinbeck Center.

Schimoler told the audience that among the issues that drive consumer perception of food in the U.S. — organics, genetically modified organisms, food safety, sustainable agriculture and health claims — obesity is the most important.

“The issue that is driving food development in foodservice today is obesity,” he said. “The obesity issue is not going away. For the first time, we’re really faced with how to deal with these issues.”

That means foodservice operators and retailers are going to have to help consumers eat better food, Schimoler said, and that, in turn, means the produce industry stands to benefit the most.

It may not be as hard as it sounds.

Schimoler said restaurants can find a great opportunity in offering “distracting flavors.” As an example, he mentioned a restaurant he is affiliated with decided to offer a peach pie without sugar and a crust with 50% less fat. To keep consumers from noticing, the chef experimented with six different kinds of basils before cooking the peaches with two basils.

“We didn’t tell anyone,” he said. “Our customers said that this was the best peach pie they had ever had, but they didn’t know why. They didn’t miss the sugar and the fat because we replaced it with something they didn’t expect.”

Steve Junqueiro, director of produce and floral for Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, said retailers could help their customers eat better by continuing to offer better taste and more convenience.

It’s paying off, he said. Among the fastest-growing categories in his stores are tomatoes, soft fruit, berries and value-added fruits and vegetables, he said. A focus on taste and convenience in recent years has helped boost sales of all of those items, he said.

But all of that hasn’t necessarily helped increase produce consumption, said Christine Bruhn, director for consumer research at the University of California-Davis. In the last 10 years, vegetable consumption per capita in the U.S. has dropped 18% and fruit consumption by 11%, she said.

“This is dismal,” she said. “No one is happy about this.”

Major reasons for this include the fact that people are eating fewer full meals at home and that they are serving fewer side dishes, which tend to contain fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, about 50% of consumers say that convenience is the most important factor in their selection of food, she said.

Only about 20% of Americans eat five servings of produce a day, she said, and interestingly enough, men older than 65 accomplish the goal the most. Half of them eat five servings daily. But only 30% of teenagers, women older than 55 and men older than 45 do, she said.