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This study focus on ingredients that are targets of food fears such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and what implications these fears have for public health, specifically the manufacturing industry, and for companies with products using these ingredients.
In the fall of 2011 we surveyed 1008 mothers by phone. First, participants were asked to rate the healthiness of yogurt, granola, cookies and presweetened cereal. Two conditions were created: one where the subjects were told that the healthier foods (yogurt and granola) included HFCS, and the other where they were told that the less healthy foods (cookies and presweetened cereal) included HFCS. We found the granola, yogurt, and cereal all received lower ratings when they were presented as containing HFCS.
Our second hypothesis tested was that negative attitudes towards HFCS might reflect more general attitudes towards sugar. This was tested by asking participants to rate their opinions on foods containing sugar, corn sugar, HFCS, and other ingredients (e.g. MSG). We found that 28% were specific avoiders of HFCS, while almost double this (59.6%) were non-HFCS specific “general” sugar avoiders.
Our third hypothesis predicted that the subjects would have more extreme views if they received their information from the Internet rather than mainstream media. Participants were asked to rate how much they agreed with 20 statements about HFCS and corn sugar, and where they tended to get their nutritional information. We then asked a standard set of questions testing need for social approval; our fourth hypothesis, related to this, was that people who avoid certain products tend to need more social approval. Those who specifically avoided HFCS were much more likely to believe negative attributes of HFCS, such as it gives you headaches, is bad for children, cannot be digested, is bad for skin, makes one sluggish, and changes the palate. They were more likely to get their information from online sources than mainstream media sources, and were not willing to pay more for table sugar substitute products. Those who specifically avoided HFCS were also more likely to exhibit higher needs for social desirability.
Our final hypothesis was that providing consumers with more information will help amend food fears. This was investigated by asking participants to rate the healthfulness of Stevia and Sucralose. One treatment group received historical information about the two sweeteners, while the other did not. We found that both Stevia and Sucralose received higher healthiness ratings when subjects were given historical background.
Overall, we found that individuals with food fears tend to receive their information from the internet and tend to exaggerate potential risks of specific food ingredients. Avoidant individuals tended to desire more social approval. Communicating both the benefits and possible risks of the ingredient, as well as the ingredient background and usage of the ingredients, can help address consumer fear and avoidance.
Wansink, Brian, Aner Tal, and Adam Brumberg (2014). Ingredient-Based Food Fears and Avoidance: Antecedents and Antidotes. Food Quality and Preference, 38, 40-48. doi:10.1016/j.foodqual.2014.05.015