Food fears based on trends, not science

Last year, more people were killed by automobile accidents, heart attacks, lung cancer, and natural causes combined than by any one tomato. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

When you have plenty of food on the table, it’s easy for us in America to decide we want to avoid certain foods. I mean, lots of us may avoid things like Brussels sprouts or squid, for example. But there is a growing trend to cast certain categories of food or food ingredients out of our diets for a variety of reasons – weight loss being number one since just about any diet tends to cut out certain food segments. There are also a good percentage of people with serious food allergies or intolerances to things like shellfish, peanuts, gluten, lactose, sulfides or even strawberries that need to avoid them.

But there is a significant amount of the population that experts say are increasingly developing an unjustified fear of certain food ingredients, particularly genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Dr. David Just of Cornell University recently testified at a congressional hearing about biotechnology that many consumers are starting to adopt beliefs about GMOs with very little knowledge about them. “There’s a large and growing number of consumers that now stigmatize GMOs in the U.S.,” said Just. “Consumers associate GMOs primarily with some unidentifiable health risk.”

However, Just has done research that shows what happens once consumers understand the reasons for genetic modification. “When consumers are presented with direct explanations of the direct benefits they are much more willing to accept the technology,” said Just.

A study cited by Just
surveyed over 1,000 mothers about their attitudes towards high fructose corn syrup in an effort to determine what drives people to stigmatize certain food ingredients. Their primary findings were that some may overweigh the perceived risks of the avoided ingredient, and secondly, “some individuals who avoid ingredients may have a greater need for social approval among their reference group.” In other words, they may be doing it because it’s the trendy thing to do, not because they have any facts or knowledge to back them up.

Indicating perhaps that their beliefs are not strongly held, the study also found that “while HCFS Avoiders had negative attitudes toward HFCS, they were not willing to pay more (compared to non-avoiders) for products that were sweetened instead with table sugar.”

During his testimony, Just repeatedly commented that the industry needs to do a better job of communicating the benefits of biotechnology to consumers and goodness knows the industry is trying, but it still seems like it’s an uphill battle, since the most effective way of getting the message across seems to be one on one conversation. We all have a dog in this fight, so wherever you are – on the plane, in the store, in an elevator – start the conversation somehow and get the word out. We need to make it trendy and cool to support GMOs!

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