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Food Matters

Food Matters

Giving science a seat at the table

Food fears: A social issue?

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From high-fructose corn syrup to lean finely textured beef, health or safety concerns about specific food ingredients can capture the public’s attention and have the potential to significantly impact the food industry. While some food fears are backed by scientific evidence, a recent study by Cornell University researchers suggests food fears may also have a social ingredient.

The researchers surveyed a sample of 1008 U.S. mothers about a specific ingredient, high-fructose corn syrup, and found that those who avoided the ingredient also were more likely to want their friends to know their opinions about food.

One reason people avoid ingredients may be as a way to create the image that they are a healthy eater, according to Aner Tal, one of the study’s authors who is a post-doctoral research associate in Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab.

Mothers who said they avoided high-fructose corn syrup also scored higher on a scale of social desirability, which measures a person’s tendency to say things they think will gain others’ approval.

But the high-fructose corn syrup avoiders may not always be willing to put their money where their mouth is. The study also found that women who said they avoided high-fructose corn syrup were not willing to pay more for a food item that contained table sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup compared to those participants who did not avoid the ingredient.

Since some food fears are unfounded, the researchers also took a look at what counteracts unnecessary food fears. Rather than a traditional approach of providing consumers with the science behind a food ingredient and its safety, the findings suggest telling consumers about the history of an ingredient and its use in other products can be helpful.

“If you know more background about something, where it comes from, where it’s used, then that makes it seem more familiar,” Tal said.

So while a need for social approval may have the potential to encourage food fears, the food industry may also have a way to fight against those fears they find unjustified.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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