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Misconceptions fuel suspicions about food additives

By Nicola Cottam , 10-Jun-2014
Last updated on 10-Jun-2014 at 15:41 GMT

Misconceptions fuel suspicions about food additives

Greater awareness of risk assessment procedures and the regulations governing them would appease consumers’ fears about artificial additives, say Swiss researchers.

The report, published in Food Quality and Preference, investigated consumer perceptions relating to food additives – finding that consumers’ insecurities may be fuelled by their lack of knowledge as well as the ambiguous and sometimes completely inaccurate information disseminated by the media.

“Food additives, especially those of artificial origin, are a source of anxiety to the consumer. In light of this study’s and previous findings, which suggest a rather small but significant relationship between knowledge and risk perception, information about risk regulation might fulfil the task of guiding interested consumers,” the authors wrote.

Perceptions of food additives

Swiss German participants were randomly chosen and asked to complete one questionnaire on artificial colours and another on artificial sweeteners to gauge their acceptance of the ingredients according to a set of variables – risk and benefit perceptions, acceptance of food additives, knowledge about the regulation and trust in the regulators of food additives.

The total sample included 506 participants for artificial food colours and 487 for artificial sweeteners.

Researchers noted that while consumers’ acceptance of additives is more likely to be influenced by risk perceptions, rather than health benefits, neither of these variables consider ‘the bigger picture’.

They argue that the benefits of food additives balance out the negligible health implications although this did not feature as a salient point in participants’ decision-making process.

“Food additives are an important part of our food supply; without food additives it would not be possible to maintain the current selection and quality of foods. Experts regard the use of food additives as justified by weighing up the minor risks linked to uncertainties with the major benefits.”

In general, artificial sweeteners were perceived as more favourable than colours because they have a defined purpose – in reducing calorie intake and preventing cavities - and are only contained in certain, clearly labelled, foods.

Transparency beneficial

Trust was deemed an important factor influencing participants’ acceptance, risk and benefit perceptions during the study (in the absence of sufficient knowledge).

Results showed that participants hold the Swiss regulators in high esteem, putting them in a strong position as communicators.

However the report went on to say greater transparency in communications and information campaigns could significantly improve consumer perceptions concerning additives

“It might be beneficial to explain the reasons for using additives in foods in more detail. This would enable consumers to retrace the experts’ risk-benefit-assessment and make their own judgements and fact-based decisions according to their preferences,” they said.

Source: Food Quality and Preference
DOI: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2014.05.008
‘The consumer’s perception of artificial food additives: Influences on acceptance, risk and benefit perceptions’
Authors: Angela Bearth, Marie-Eve Cousin, Michael Siegrist

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