Food for thought: 51 percent of US consumers believe food additives pose serious health risks

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21 Nov 2018 --- Fifty-one percent of US consumers believe the average person faces a serious health risk from food additives over their lifetime, Pew Research Center research has revealed. A further 48 percent believe the average person is exposed to potentially threatening additives in such small amounts that there is no serious risk, according to these latest findings. The research looked into consumer understanding on matters such as genetically modified (GM) ingredients, illustrating how against the backdrop of ongoing developments in food science, US consumers have their own set of interconnecting beliefs about food issues.

Seven-in-ten US consumers believe science has mostly had a positive effect on the quality of food. However, when asked about an area where new developments in biotechnology are changing the possibilities for how foods are grown and consumed, roughly half (49 percent) believe that foods with GM ingredients are worse for one's health when compared to non-GM foods. Forty-four percent of consumers said that such foods are neither better nor worse, according to the survey involving 2,537 US adults. 

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Source: Pew Research Center

“As consumers are confronted with new food technologies and ongoing debates over how what we eat can have a lasting impact on one’s health, this study has revealed a divided public over food issues. Women and people who care deeply about the issue of GM foods are more wary of health risks from food additives and GM foods,” explains Cary Funk, Director of Science and Society Research at Pew Research Center and lead author of the report. 

“While there are consistent patterns in public beliefs about these food science issues, the divides do not fall along political lines. Instead, people seem to form their own ‘food ideologies’ about the relationship between health and the foods they consume,” she notes.

Speaking to FoodIngredientsFirst Haley Nolan, Communications Assistant at Pew Research Center, says: “A key insight from the center’s research is that, against the backdrop of ongoing developments in food science, US consumers have their own set of interconnecting beliefs about food issues. 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. Furthermore, this is an area where people’s beliefs tend to align with their personal eating habits. For example, people who estimate that a larger share of their diet is organic 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 non-GM ingredients.”

“This research is part of our broader research program looking at public views of science and its role in society. We have an ongoing interest in these kinds of issues,” she notes.  

Public divisions matter?
 

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Source: Pew Research Center

Public divisions over these food issues align with gender and with how much people know about science, based on a nine-item index of factual knowledge, according to researchers. On average, women are more concerned than men about potential health risks from food additives and GM foods. People with low science knowledge tend to express more concern about the health risks from these food groups compared with those high in scientific knowledge.

The 22 percent of Americans who care about the GM foods are not only much more likely to think GM foods are worse for one’s health than those who are less concerned, but they are also more likely to see a higher health risk from eating food produced using common agricultural practices, including meat containing antibiotics or foods made with artificial ingredients.

Highlights among the findings include:
• Public concern is highest for meat from animals given antibiotics or hormones and produces grown with pesticides (32 percent and 31 percent, respectively, consider each to pose a great deal of health risk to the average person).
• 26 percent say food and drinks with artificial preservatives pose a great deal of health risk for the average person over time; 21 percent say the same about foods with artificial colorings.
• When asked about eating habits regarding 10 broad types of food ingredients, 44 percent of US adults said they would restrict or limit consumption of artificial sweeteners, 38 percent report limiting sugar, 33 percent limit artificial preservatives and 28 percent limit artificial coloring.

Women are consistently more wary than men of food additives, as are those concerned about the GM foods issue:
 

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Source: Pew Research Center

• 39 percent of women say fruits and vegetables grown with pesticides pose a great deal of health risk, compared with 23 percent of men who say the same. Similarly, more women (39 percent) than men (25 percent) say meat from animals given antibiotics or hormones poses a great deal of health risk for the average person.
• 66 percent of those who care deeply about the GM foods issue believe that meat from animals given antibiotics or hormones poses a great deal of health risk to the average person over time, versus 12 percent among those who care not too much/not at all about the GM foods issue (a 54-percentage-point difference).

And approximately half of US adults see GM foods as worse for their health:
• 49 percent of Americans believe foods with GM ingredients are worse for one's health, while 44 percent say such foods are neither better nor worse than non-GM foods and 5 percent say they are better for one's health.
• The share of Americans who say that foods with GM ingredients are worse for one's health is up 10 percentage points, from 39 percent in 2016, with the uptick in concern primarily among those with low levels of science knowledge.
• 52 percent of those with low science knowledge say GM foods are worse for health, up 23 points from 29 percent in 2016. There is no shift in beliefs among those with high science knowledge; 38 percent in this group say GM foods are worse for health, as did 37 percent in 2016.

Other findings from the study revealed that US consumer views about organic foods tend to vary by age:
• 45 percent say that organic produce provides net benefits for health, 51 percent see no health advantage for organics over conventionally grown produce and 3 percent say organics are worse for health.
• Some 54 percent of those ages 18 to 29 and 47 percent of those 30 to 49 say organic produce is better for one's health. In comparison, 39 percent of those ages 65 and older believe organic produce is better for one's health than conventionally grown produce.
• Compared with 2016, the share of US adults who say that organic fruits and vegetables are better for one's health declined from 55 percent to 45 percent in 2018. This shift in beliefs occurred among people with high and medium science knowledge, but not low science knowledge.

By Elizabeth Green

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