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Are your food fears justified? What about gluten, MSG, high fructose corn syrup?

Cornell researchers say consumers need better information about what they eat

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Perhaps the mark of an affluent culture is one in which its citizens can be choosy about what they eat. In the U.S., we're beginning to be defined less by what we eat and more by the food we avoid.

Researchers at Cornell call it “food fear,” suggesting that a lot of information – and misinformation – about food is scaring consumers away from many types of food and ingredients. Their study looks at ways to correct what the authors see as misconceptions.

“MSG, gluten and high fructose corn syrup are just a few of the ingredients that have received a lot of negative attention in recent years,” said Aner Tal, post-doctoral researcher at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. “While some ingredient food fears are justified by objective evidence, others have unnecessarily damaged some industries.”

Avoiding gluten

Gluten may be a prime example. Some people – not a very significant number – have a condition called celiac disease that requires them to avoid gluten, a mix of natural proteins in some food that gives it a stretchable and elastic texture. It's primarily in wheat-based foods like bread and crackers.

To serve this rather small population food manufacturers began producing gluten-free products that have now become popular with consumers who do not have celiac disease, but who have nonetheless adopted a gluten-free diet.

This food trend is very prevalent in Los Angeles, which inspired comedian Jimmy Kimmel's humorous observation below.

False feeling

Harry Balzer, the head industry analyst at the NPD group, has said people who eliminate gluten from their diet without having celiac disease most likely do it from “a false feeling of wellness.” The Cornell researchers tend to agree and find this point of view extends to other foods and ingredients.

Their research focused on consumers who avoid specific ingredients and draws 4 key conclusions about these selective consumers:

  • They are more likely to receive their information from the Internet rather than television;
  • They had a desire to have their food-related opinions known by their friends or reference group;
  • Feared ingredients mainly hurt evaluation of foods that they perceived as relatively healthy rather than of foods that they perceived as unhealthy; and
  • Those with a fear of a specific ingredient may exaggerate and overweigh perceived risks.

Solid information

On the other hand, the research team found that when consumers were presented with solid information about an ingredient’s history, background, and general usage the fear dissipated. 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 as healthier than those who did not

“Learn the science, history, and the process of how the ingredient is made,” said Brian Wansink, lead author and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. “You’ll be a smarter, savvier consumer if you do.”

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