WASHINGTON, June 27, 2014 – GMO’s, high fructose corn syrup, ‘pink slime’, fat – stoked by the Internet, water cooler talk and news reports, many consumers have found these food ingredients and products the subject of their food nightmares. How are they made? Why are they made? And are they safe? But according to a new study, educators and industry can combat ingredient-based fears if they effectively communicate the substances’ history, background, and general usage.

The study, released by Cornell University researchers and published this month by the journal Food Quality and Preference, asked 1,008 U.S. mothers via a national phone survey about what kinds of foods they avoided. The women were then grouped into two sets: high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) avoiders and sugar avoiders. 

The study found that HFCS avoiders were much more likely to receive their information from the Internet and wanted to share their food-related choices with their friends, but were not willing to pay more for foods that contained regular table sugar.

“Blogs and Internet websites provide easy access to targeted information that can support almost any pre-existing opinion,” the researchers note. “If a person has a pre-existing opinion or fear of an ingredient, an Internet search can easily return results that further support or confirm their viewpoint.” 

But companies can combat those fears, the scientists found, by giving consumers more information. Researchers asked participants to rate the healthfulness of the natural sweetener Stevia. Half the participants were given historical and contextual information; the other half were given nothing to read. Those who were given information rated the sweetener “healthier,” the scientists reported. 

The researchers recommended that companies hoping to combat “food fears” focus both on dispelling myths about their ingredients and their potential benefits. “Underscoring the benefits of stigmatized foods and ingredients has been proven to lead consumers to rethink their food fears in lab experiments, and deserves being further investigated in the field,” the Cornell researchers wrote. 


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