Natural advocates may overestimate additive risk: Study

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food and drink Whole foods Risk

Consumers who are generally concerned about chemicals in their lives are more likely to seek out natural foods, indicates a new study from Switzerland – but if they have no grasp of dose levels they may be overestimate the potential risks posed by synthetic additives.

Natural and organic foods are attracting considerable interest from European consumers, and many manufacturers are engaged in a quest to ‘clean up’ ingredients lists by replacing chemical-sounding names with natural alternatives.

But according to Maria Dickson-Spillmann, Michael Siegrist and Carmen Keller from the ETH Zurich, some of the consumers they are catering to may have a misplaced fear of small amounts of chemicals, and better risk communication is needed to address this.

They explain that natural and organic are closely equated concepts in consumers’ minds. For their study, accepted for publication in the Elsevier journal Food Quality and Preference, they labelled synthetic flavourings, colourings and preservatives as ‘additives’, and pesticides, antibiotics and dioxins as ‘contaminants’.

The study involved postal questionnaires sent out to a random selection of 3000 households in the Germany-speaking part of Switzerland. The questionnaire, designed to probe general attitudes to chemicals, risk perception for chemicals in food and views on natural food, was to be filled out by the adult (over 18) whose birthday was next. The response rate was 40.5 per cent.

The responses were analysed using structural equation modelling. In addition to the association between negativity over chemicals and positive attitudes to natural food, the researchers found that women were more likely than men to be concerned about additives and contaminants.

They said the findings emphasise the importance of general attitudes to chemicals and risk perception of foods.

“While using these attitudes to make food choices is generally a legitimate strategy, some consumers might have an overly simple view of foods with synthetic chemicals as dangerous, and thus giving inappropriate attention to synthetic contents of food products,”​ they said.

The researchers concluded that future communications on chemicals in food should shift away from the “synthetic equals dangerous” perception to the more appropriate perception that all foods consist of chemicals, and chemicals are dangerous if ingested in large amounts.

“If consumers with strongly negative attitudes towards chemicals no longer equated synthetic with toxic and natural with safe, consumers would be able to judge food hazards more appropriately”.


Food Quality and Preference (online ahead of print)

DOI: doi:10.1016/j.foodqual.2010.09.001
Attitudes toward chemicals are associated with preference for natural food

Authors: Maria Dickson-Spillmann, Michael Siegrist, Carmen Keller

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