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What makes us fear food?

By Maggie Hennessy , 01-Jul-2014
Last updated the 01-Jul-2014 at 16:20 GMT

More and more consumers rely on the internet for their news, and stories can go viral within minutes, so it’s unsurprising that certain food ingredients have become the subject of fear and avoidance in this information age. 

Researchers from Cornell Univeristy sought to investigate who might be most prone to food fears and why through a 2011 phone survey of 1,008 mothers—using high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as the controversial ingredient. (The research was funded in part by the Corn Refiners Association, though the researchers say the trade group played no role in the data analysis.)

Of those surveyed, 283 (28%) claimed to have avoided at least one food in the past three months because it contained HFCS. The percentage of HFCS avoiders was much higher than estimates by Mintel in 2011 (that 3% of the population is concerned with HFCS, and 4% actively avoid it). The researchers attributed this to their survey’s more liberal classification of avoiders as those who said they avoided consuming a product that contained HFCS even once, as opposed to on multiple occasions.

When comparing those who avoided HFCS with those who did not, the researchers also found that avoiders were more likely to receive more of their information from the internet rather than TV (24.3% of avoiders use internet, and 10.6% use TV, versus 10.97% of non-avoiders use internet, 33.87% use TV).

And yet, HFCS-avoiders were not willing to pay more for a table sugar substitute compared to those participants who did not actively avoid it. For instance, when asked how much more they would be willing to pay for a cereal, salad dressing, soft drinks, or yogurt that contained table sugar for corn sugar, HFCS avoiders were not willing to pay more than the other groups.

Moreover, the researchers found that HFCS avoiders had a stronger desire to have their food related choices known by their friends or reference groups than those who didn’t express concerns about sugar content. Similarly, HFCS avoiders said it was more important to them that their friends know they buy organic foods and beverages than non-avoiders. This finding underscored a novel potential motivation—akin to the so-called Prius Effect (buying a car of a unique shape that is easily identifiable as environmentally friendly) behind ingredient avoidance, the researchers wrote.

“Whereas past work has comprehensively modeled the different ways in which individuals assess risk and benefits related to food concerns, it has devoted less attention to the motivations of those who express or act on those fears.”

Where does our disapproval come from?

Isolating dislike of a single ingredient from the foods in which it is used or with which it is most associated can be difficult. Much of the early panic around Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow Disease) is alleged by some to have been partly fueled by non-beef eaters –including vegetarians, for example. The dislike of the ingredient can then translate to dislike of foods with which it’s commonly associated. Not only that, but an ingredient that’s perceived as being a market share leader of a disapproved category could receive a disproportionate degree of blame or visibility relative to similar but less visible members of that category (aspartame comes to mind).

Additionally, consumers can adopt attitudes similar to those endorsed by members of their reference group. For instance, a series of taste tests in 2013 by Lee, Shimizu, Kniffin & Wansink (2013) found that consumers who were pro-organic rated cookies potato chips and yogurt as tasting more flavorful and lower in fat when they were labeled as organic compared to when they were not labeled as organic, according to the study.

Preliminary findings in the study also showed that participant’s views toward ingredients became more positive when they were either informed about the history and functions of the ingredient, or informed of the range of familiar products that currently contain the ingredient—all factors that contribute to familiarity with the product.

Indeed, 877 respondents were asked to rate their attitude about the natural sweetener stevia on a 9-point scale (1 being not healthy; 9 being healthy). Half were given a short history of the product and then asked to rate it. When given a short history of the product, the health ratings of stevia moved up from 5.18 to 5.61. Similar results were found when respondents were given a description of the uses for the artificial sweetener sucralose, with ratings of healthfulness increasing from 3.43 to 4.09. 

Source: Food Quality and Preference
DOI: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2014.05.015
“Ingredient-based food fears and avoidance: Antecedents and antidotes”
Authors: Brian Wansink, Aner Tal and Adam Brumberg

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