What drives ingredient-based food fears?

That was the question asked in this article just published in the journal Food Quality and Preference.  The authors, Brian Wansink, Aner Tal, and Adam Brumberg surveyed over 1,000 mothers to study which food ingredients they found fearful, and they consider how such fears can be alleviated.  

The abstract:

This study investigates food fears that are ingredient-based, focusing on the case of high-fructose corn syrup. The results of a national phone survey of 1008 U.S. mothers offer five preliminary sets of observations: first, consumers with a fear of a specific ingredient – such as high-fructose corn syrup – may exaggerate and overweigh perceived risks. Second, such consumers may often receive more information from the internet than from television. Third, they may be partly influenced by their reference group. Fourth, ingredients associated with less healthy foods mainly hurt evaluation of foods perceived as relatively healthy. Fifth, food fears may be offset when an ingredient’s history, background, and general usage are effectively communicated. These findings suggest new insights for understanding how public health, industry, and consumer groups can more effectively target and address ingredient fears.

From the conclusions:

When health risks exist, food fears are merited. In other cases, ingredient fears and avoidance may be wrongly based on the stigmatization of an ingredient or on misinformation. These results offer new preliminary insights about who is most prone to ingredient avoidance, where they receive their information, what types of ingredients are most susceptible to being feared, and how fears might be mitigated.

There appear to be at least two non-mutually exclusive motivating factors behind ingredient avoidance. First, some individuals may overweigh the perceived risks of the avoided ingredient. Second, some individuals who avoid ingredients may have a greater need for social approval among their reference group than those with a more moderate view (though such effects were small in our sample). This is a key contribution to the literature on risk because it underscores a novel potential motivation – akin to the Prius Effect – behind ingredient avoidance.