Everybody eats–which is, of course, why food science stands out among scientific fields for its direct relevance to everyday citizens. Food serves as a source of nourishment, a means to achieving better health and a centerpiece of social gatherings.

Food is also undergoing constant change, as new technologies raise ongoing questions for consumers looking to make “safe” choices for their long-term health. A new Pew Research Center report shows an American public that is closely divided over two broad types of food technologies: additives, and genetically modified (GM) crops or other GM ingredients. What’s more, a closer look at these public divides tell a larger story about how Americans assess science.

Credit: Pew Research Center.

About half of the public (51 percent) believes the average person faces a serious health risk over the long term from eating foods with additives, while 48 percent say potentially threatening additives exist in such small amounts that there is no serious health risk.

More specifically, the center asked people to evaluate the potential risk of four types of additives associated with the production and processing of food: meat from animals given hormones or antibiotics, produce grown with pesticides and artificial preservatives or artificial coloring. The public was evenly divided with half (50 percent) saying at least one of the four poses a great deal of health risk to the average person and half saying none of these pose a great deal of health risk.

Similarly, there is a close division among the public about the health effects of GM, also known as genetically engineered, foods; about half (49 percent) consider such foods to be worse for one’s health than foods with no GM ingredients, while 44 percent say GM foods are neither better nor worse than non-GM foods, and 5 percent say they are better for one’s health.

These beliefs do not exist in isolation from one another. Rather, they tend to be closely connected. That is, those who see more health risk from food additives also tend to see GM foods as worse for one’s health than non-GM foods. Further, this is an area where people’s beliefs tend to align with their eating habits. For example, people who estimate that a larger share of their diet is organic— foods which, by design, are intended to eliminate artificial preservatives, flavors and colors as well as pesticides and genetically modified ingredients—are more inclined to see serious health risks for the average person from additives in foods and to consider GM foods worse for one’s health than foods with no GM ingredients.

It might be easy to discount the public’s differences over food. After all, the divides do not fall along the familiar fault lines of public opinion seen on many other civic issues. We are living in an age of polarization, but there are no more than modest differences about food issues by political party. Nor are there consistent divides by age or generation. Women are consistently warier than men about both food additives and GM foods. But the correlation is not so large that you could easily pinpoint a person’s point of view by knowing simply whether they are male or female.

Nonetheless, these latest surveys indicate that people have their own set of beliefs about these issues—and these beliefs are consequential when it comes to their assessments of science. For example, among those who say that all four types of food additives considered in the survey pose a great deal of health risk, 56 percent believe the effect of science on the quality of food has been mostly negative, while 44 percent say the effect has been mostly positive. By contrast, 81 percent of those who say none of the four types of food additives pose a great deal of health risk believe that science has had a positive effect on food quality in the U.S.

Credit: Pew Research Center.

Similarly, the 17 percent of Americans who believe that GM foods are worse for one’s health and say they care a great deal about the GM foods issue are far more negative in their assessment. Among this group, 44 percent say the effect of science on the quality of food in the U.S. has been mostly positive, while 56 percent say it has been negative. For comparison, those who say that GM foods are neither better nor worse than other foods are largely positive about the effect of science; 85 percent of this group says science has had a mostly positive effect on the quality of food in the U.S.

Food scientists, industry groups and health care professionals are themselves often at odds over which foods are safe and how foods connect with health. Indeed, the back-and-forth, conflicting media reports about the health effects of what we eat and drink are often cited as sources of public confusion over food issues. But a key insight from the center’s public opinion research is that, against the backdrop of ongoing developments, Americans have their own set of interconnecting beliefs about food issues, often converging with their own personal eating habits. These findings suggest that those interested in reaching wide audiences would do well to engage with those holding deep concerns about these issues to better understand their perspective and how it ties into their assessment of the scientific enterprise.