Consumer concerns about chemicals in food rise while their trust in food safety sinks, survey finds

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Concerns about chemicals in food rise while trust in food safety sinks

Related tags Food Food safety

Concern about “chemicals” in the food supply is growing among Americans, many of whom are changing how they buy food as a result, according to a recent survey. 

Of the more than 1,000 American adults in the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2015 Food and Health Survey, 36% said “chemicals in food”​ is the most important food safety issue for them – outpacing the 34% who identified food borne illness from bacteria as their top concern.

The percentage of adults most concerned about chemicals in their food is up a whopping 13 percentage points from last year, according to the survey, which has been conducted for the past 10 years.

While the survey did not define chemicals, it broke out as top consumer concerns other chemical-like qualities, including pesticide residues, animal antibiotics and undeclared allergens. Of these, pesticide residues was the top concern for 9% of survey respondents, which is half what it was in 2014 when 16% listed it as their top concern, according to IFIC.

“Among those who chose chemicals in food, pesticide residues or animal antibiotics in food as their top concerns, more than four in 10 (45%) have made changes to their food purchases because of recent information,”​ IFIC said in the report.

It added news outlets, not government materials or food producer and manufacturer websites, were the go-to source for most consumers seeking information about chemicals in food, pesticide residues and animal antibiotics.

Several restaurants and CPG companies are responding to these concerns by reformulating their menus and products and broadcasting the changes through major media outlets. For example, Chipotle​ and Panera Bread​, announced they are dropping undesirable ingredients from their foods.  

CPG companies also are reformulating products in response to consumer concerns about “chemicals”​ and ingredients they can’t pronounce. For example, CapriSun recently reformulated its beverages to include “just five simple ingredients: filtered water, sugar, juice, citric acid and natural flavor,”​ it announced. In addition, Zevia recently dropped from its product line all colors​, which could be considered chemicals by some consumers. 

Concerns about food safety rise

Americans who cited “chemicals in food”​ as their most important food safety issue also were less confident in the safety of the food supply, which has been slowly eroding since 2012, according to the survey.

Of the consumers who cited chemicals as their top concern, 46% said they were not confident in the food supply’s safety. Likewise, 10% of those who listed pesticide residue and 8% of those who listed animal antibiotics said they were not confident in the food supply’s safety, according to the survey.

Overall, American’s confidence in the safety of the food supply has fallen from 78% in 2012 to 61% in 2015, according to the report.

“Now only one in 10 (11%) feel ‘very confident’ in food safety, whereas in 2012, twice as many felt ‘very confident’ (20%),”​ the report noted.

GMOs not listed as a concern

Notably, genetic engineering, which often is cited as a cause of concern about the safety of food, did not appear as a top safety concern in the survey.

However, 48% of respondents did say they have heard or read that they should avoid foods produced using biotechnology.

Despite wide awareness of the negative perception of GMOs, 66% of survey respondents agreed that the overall healthfulness of the food or beverage is more important than the use of biotechnology. The FDA has said multiple times that GMOs are safe, however proponents question their healthfulness.

Additionally, 50% of survey respondents agreed biotechnology can be one tool to help ensure we have enough food for everyone as the world population grows. This aligns with research by the NPD Group in 2013 that found 44% of consumers said GMOs have benefits, compared to 25% who said they do not.

Consumer confusion about GMOs, as well as the ongoing debate about mandatory verses voluntary labeling, has many manufacturers unclear about whether to go non-GMO. FoodNavigator-USA’s upcoming online Going Non-GMO Forum​ on May 20 at 11:30 EDT will walk attendees through the market potential of going non-GMO, outline the current legislative landscape and help them understand the verification process. The forum is free and easy to register for – simply click here​. 

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1 comment

Consumer ignorance

Posted by Tim K,

a chemical substance is a form of matter that has constant chemical composition and characteristic properties. These consumers must be really smart if they can read into that definition and see something negative. "difficult to pronounce" ingredients? be careful of that eicosapentaenoic acid, it may make you smart enough to do some research of your own. consumers need to spend more time exercising and eating more fruits and veg instead of worrying about "chemicals" and big words.

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