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Food Fears: Increasing Familiarity is the Best Way to Avoid Ingredient-Based Food Fear

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Published on Jun 25, 2014

We have all seen the headlines "New health concerns about Ingredient X". Even though the actual risk to consumers is often not specified, these types of warnings tend to perpetuate ingredient-based food fears that cause consumers to steer clear of foods that contain ingredient x without actually knowing the facts. While many fears are based on actual health risk and are therefore merited, others are based on misinformation and can cause damage to food manufacturers, farmers and potentially even the consumers they are meant to protect. Cornell Food and Brand Lab researchers found that there are common characteristics among individuals more inclined to have food fears and that there are some effective ways to reduce unmerited ingredient bias among consumers. Lead author Brian Wansink states, "Inaccurate and negative evaluations of an ingredient can be offset through increased familiarity with the ingredient including its history, background and general use."

The study, published in Food Quality and Preference, was conducted via a phone survey of 1008 U.S. mothers who were asked questions about the controversial food ingredient High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). The researchers wanted to uncover who was most likely to avoid fear-evoking ingredients, background reasons for avoiding it, and what could be done to minimize and correct misconceptions.

The study found that when participants were told that a food perceived as relatively healthy contained HFCS, they rated it as less healthy than if it contained regular sugar. However, foods perceived as less healthy, such as heavily processed foods, were rated the same whether or not they listed HFCS as an ingredient. The study also found that those who claimed to avoid HFCS (versus those who did not) were not willing to pay more for foods that contained regular table sugar. HFCS avoiders were also more likely to receive their information from the internet rather than TV and expressed a desire to have their food related opinions known.

Researchers found that giving more information about the ingredient such as its history is effective in reducing ingredient fears. To arrive at this conclusion they asked participants to rate the healthfulness of Stevia, a natural sweetener. Half of the participants were given historical and contextual information to read about the product and the remaining participants were not given anything to read. Those who received information about an ingredient's history rated the product higher than those who did not. Researchers also experimented with referring to HFCS as "corn sugar" and found that the new name increased ratings slightly but was still rated lower than table sugar in perceived healthfulness.

In conclusion, Dr. Wansink recommends as an effective way to reduce unwarranted aversion to an ingredient to "familiarize the public with it by sharing its history and functions and letting them know what common products currently contain it—once people feel familiar with the ingredient, they'll find no reason to fear it!"

For more information visit: http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/op/...

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