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Are Food Additives Good or Bad? Consumer Views Vary

HealthDay News
by -- Steven Reinberg
Updated: Nov 20th 2018

new article illustration

TUESDAY, Nov. 20, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- Many Americans believe they face health risks from food additives, but plenty of others think that additives in small amounts won't harm them, a new survey finds.

It seems the United States is divided about the harms and benefits of modern food production practices.

Specifically, 51 percent of Americans say they could be sickened by food additives, but 48 percent believe that exposure is so low it's not a serious risk, according to the Pew Research Center survey.

"As consumers are confronted with a flow of new food technologies and with ongoing debates over how what we eat can have a lasting impact on one's health, this study reveals a divided public over food issues," said Cary Funk, Pew's director of science and society research.

More than 2,500 U.S. adults were surveyed. Seventy percent believe science positively affects food quality. But about half believe foods with genetically modified (GM) ingredients are worse for your health than non-GM foods.

On average, women are more concerned than men about health risks from food additives and from GM foods, the findings showed. And people with limited science knowledge worry more about health risks from these foods than those with greater scientific knowledge.

The 22 percent of Americans who care a lot about GM foods are likely to think they're worse for health, the survey found. They are also the most concerned about health risks from processed foods and controversial farm practices, such as use of hormones or antibiotics in animals, produce grown with pesticides, or foods containing artificial ingredients.

These food-safety opinions are personal, not political, added Funk, the lead author of the report.

"While there are consistent patterns in public beliefs about these food science issues, the divides do not fall along political lines. Instead, people seem to form their own 'food ideologies' about the relationship between health and the foods we eat," she explained in a Pew news release.

Other key findings:

  • Nearly one-third of respondents believe meat from animals given antibiotics or hormones, and produce grown with pesticides, pose a great deal of risk to health.
  • While pesticides on foods concern 39 percent of women, they worry just 23 percent of men. Likewise, 39 percent of women, versus one-quarter of men, say meat from animals given antibiotics or hormones is risky.
  • More than one-quarter of Americans think artificial preservatives are a long-term health risk. More than one in five says the same about artificial dyes.
  • Forty-four percent said they restrict consumption of artificial sweeteners and 38 percent limit sugar. One-third limit artificial preservatives, and close to 30 percent watch out for artificial coloring.
  • Of those who care about GM foods, two-thirds believe that meat from animals given antibiotics or hormones is a health risk, compared with 12 percent of those who don't care about the issue.
  • People who eat more organic foods are more likely to believe food additives are a risk to health.
  • Forty-nine percent of Americans believe foods with GM ingredients are worse for health, while 44 percent are neutral on the issue. Five percent say they're better for health.
  • Half of people well-versed in science think GM foods are safe and will increase the world food supply.
  • Americans' views about organic foods vary by age. Around half of people aged 18 to 49 say organic produce is better for health. That's true of only 39 percent of adults 65 and older.

More information

For more on food safety, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.