Fear is persuasive, it sells. It seems everywhere we look there is another sensational headline warning consumers of the dangers of a particular food or ingredient. Food is an emotional and often passionate topic, and now a scary one it would seem. People are often confused over what they can eat or safely serve to their family. This confusion can sometimes morph into a fear of certain foods or ingredients.
Food fears come in all shapes and sizes. Some are very real and may be due to a severe food allergy or another condition such as anorexia or orthorexia, an unhealthy obsession with eating extremely healthy all the time. Other food fears may be based on misinformation, which is plentiful on the internet these days and often fed by the media.
The reporting of studies in the media can be particularly troublesome. Reporters may not have the scientific background necessary to accurately interpret the findings. Often, findings are overgeneralized. Recently, an article appeared in the New York Times with the headline, Is Breakfast Overrated? The article highlighted some recent studies that show breakfast may not matter that much in terms of weight loss. The studies can only be considered preliminary findings at best. The importance of breakfast for overall health, especially when it comes to children and learning is well established in the scientific literature. The headline seems to suggest this is not the case, when in fact the studies only looked at weight loss and nothing more.
An additional challenge, as other research has shown, is that the media is more likely to report initial findings, particularly if they are controversial or related to new or hot topics such as obesity. When additional research proves initial findings false or unsupported, this is rarely reported in the news. This results in a confused and misinformed public.
The Power of Food Activists
Another way that misinformation and fear spreads is through self-proclaimed experts or activists, who misrepresent science and lack credibility. One gaining attention lately is Vani Hari, aka Food Babe. She was trained in computer science with no formal education in anything related to food or nutrition, yet she has catapulted herself to the forefront with her campaigns that instill fear in her audience and completely misrepresent science. Her most recent crusades have included campaigns against Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte and beer companies like Anheuser Busch.
Food Industry Response
Even some food manufacturers play into food fears by using certain marketing tactics. For instance, some companies have responded to consumer fears about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), despite the extensive body of science that has shown it is nutritionally equivalent and metabolized by the body similarly to table sugar, by either removing it from their products or claiming on the front of the package that the product does not contain any HFCS. Often, these products never contained HFCS in the first place. This is a distraction to consumers, preventing them from focusing on what’s important: the amount of all sugars and total calories in a product.
It is human nature to be skeptical or even fearful of the unknown. A recent study by Dr. Wansink at Cornell University explored fears about food ingredients, including HFCS. Among his sample of over one thousand mothers, he found that those who had negative attitudes towards HFCS were more likely to get their information from the internet and also were more likely to seek out social approval or make their feelings known to friends.
Dr. Wansink also explored how food fears can be mitigated, and found that providing information about an ingredient’s background, history and uses can help alleviate fears. This helps the ingredient become familiar and serves as a basis for greater understanding. This type of information is most readily going to come from the food industry or from experts about a particular product. This should be viewed as one stop on a fact finding mission.
Recently on a road trip, I listened to Freakonomics. There was a line in the recording that really struck a chord with me and is so applicable to this topic:
“Fear is the enemy of rational thought.” – Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics
Let’s leave the emotions at the door and think rationally about the evidence from all sides. Seeking out true experts with the background and qualifications to accurately interpret science can help ease fears and allow us to enjoy food.