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Consumers continue to rate chemicals in food as top food safety concern

Tom Neltner, Senior Director, Safer Chemicals

For the eighth year in a row, consumers rated chemicals as their top food safety concern according to the annual industry survey of consumer perspectives on food issues. In the survey conducted in March 2022, 48% of consumers rated chemicals as their top category of food safety concern – about the same as 2021 – compared to 22% for foodborne illness from bacteria. The chemicals category includes: cancer-causing chemicals (15%); pesticides (13%); food additives and ingredients (11%); and heavy metals (9%).

Last year, we examined the International Food Information Council’s (IFIC) 2021 Food and Health Survey in detail. Our takeaway was that consumers continue to be concerned about chemicals in food, partly because they lack confidence that the federal government is actually ensuring additives—like artificial sweeteners—are safe. (Nearly 70% didn’t know that’s the government’s role).

As a result, consumers do their best to protect their health and safety by avoiding ingredients that sound like chemicals—the only way they see to control the perceived risk. In reaction to consumer concerns, some food companies have undertaken “clean label” programs, which, according to a 2017 analysis by Center for Science in the Public Interest, either remove these ingredients (which can be helpful if the removed ingredients are unsafe) or use names that do not sound like chemicals (which obscures the facts and can be misleading).

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Chemicals in food continue to be a top food safety concern among consumers

Chemicals in food continue to be a top food safety concern among consumers

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, consultant

The latest annual food industry survey demonstrates that U.S. consumers continue to have significant concerns about chemicals in food. Specifically, the survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) found:

  • 29% of consumers rated chemicals in food as their top food safety concern, more than any other issue, including foodborne illness from bacteria. Everyone rated chemicals in food among the top three concerns. Chemicals in food has been the top concern every year since 2017, tying risk from COVID-19 from food last year. It has been a significant concern back to the first IFIC Food and Health Survey in 2009.
  • 69% of consumers did not realize that the U.S. government is responsible for reviewing the safety of low-calorie sweeteners, which are among the most well-known food additives.
  • 54% of consumers reported it is important that ingredients do not have “chemical-sounding names” including 26% that rate it “very important.” Their opinion is primarily based on food safety and healthfulness concerns.

Our takeaway is that consumers continue to be concerned about chemicals in food, partly because they are not confident that the federal government is actually ensuring additives are safe. Therefore, they do their best to try and protect their health and safety by avoiding ingredients that sound like chemicals – the only way they see to control the perceived risk. In reaction to consumer concerns, food companies have undertaken “clean label” programs that either remove these ingredients (which can be helpful) or use names that do not sound like chemicals (which obscure the fact and can be misleading).

A better approach is to actually ensure the chemicals in food are safe and healthy rather than leaving consumers to judge products based on the sound of the ingredient names. Actual safety is the outcome that Congress intended when it adopted the Food Additives Amendment of 1958. Instead, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency with both the responsibility and the authority for food safety, allows companies to decide in secret that additives are safe, fails to consider the cumulative health effect of chemicals in the diet, and lacks any systematic reassessment of past decisions even when new evidence shows potential harm.

FDA needs to step up and address these shortcomings to make our food safe and restore consumer confidence. This involves not only improving its approach to addressing ingredient safety but also their approach towards contaminants that enter our food from the environment, from the packaging, or from food processing.

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