Is it “Chemophobia” or Fear of the Unknown? IFIC Foundation Study Gets to Heart of Moms’ Fears About Food

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By Henry Chin, Tony Flood, and Elizabeth Petrun 

In a recently published study by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, “Shaping Health Perceptions: Communicating Effectively about Chemicals in Food” (Petrun, et al., 2015), consumer research experts observed a focus group of women having a discussion about their families and how they care for them.  The women were from different backgrounds.  One was a bus driver, another worked in healthcare.  Among other things, they’re united by a passion for making the “right” food choices for their families. 

The study was motivated by a need to better understand some of the underlying reasons for the apparently negative sentiment moms have toward chemicals and related topics, especially chemicals in food. Of particular interest were the feelings behind their perceptions of the food contact substance Bisphenol A (BPA), the heat-formed compound acrylamide, and a chemical commonly found in soil, arsenic. 

It came as no surprise to the observers when the moms explained that they want to buy the most healthful food to feed to their children.  As the discussion evolved, the observers realized that what the women fear most about food is the unknown and how it could affect their families and loved ones.

Negativity toward chemicals is not a recent phenomenon.  Nearly 50 years ago, a science writer coined the word “Chemophobia” to describe this phenomenon, and the word has been used ever since.  Unfortunately, it is not only a pejorative term, but also leads to misunderstanding about people’s motivations.  Phobias are generally exaggerated, irrational fears, based upon imaginary dangers and fearful consequences. 

However, as the IFIC Foundation study showed, “consumers are not irrational” when responding to chemicals. Their responses are based on their level of knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs, attributes that define our individuality as much as our hair color, height, and fingerprints.

How Much do Moms Know About Chemicals in Food?

The research also showed that knowledge among mothers of school-aged children currently under their care and living in their home about chemicals in food is generally low.  This ranged from knowledge about why chemicals are present, to the obvious questions of safety.  When asked to describe chemicals, survey participants’ responses ranged from  “anything added to food” to “anything unnatural sounding,” to  listing commonly (and safely) used food additives and ingredients.

In reality, moms’ conversations about chemicals in food are not framed by trained experts in risk assessment and risk management, but by visceral passions to do the right thing for those they care about. 

The dichotomy between attitudes among scientists and attitudes among consumers is probably best illustrated by the moms’ reactions to messages about BPA:

Highest Scoring Messages (meaning they improved understanding of BPA and provided reassurance about its use):

1. “Consensus science continues to demonstrate the safety of BPA as a food packaging compound.

2. FDA regulates its use in food packaging materials.” 

Lowest Scoring Messages (meaning they did not facilitate understanding of BPA or provide reassurance about its use):

1. “Past and present studies confirm that BPA is rapidly absorbed, detoxified, and eliminated from…”

2. “The majority of effects observed in animal studies are probably not relevant to humans.” 

Most regulatory scientists would probably argue that the lowest-scoring messages are extremely positive, and that the highest-scoring messages support those statements.  This study shows that moms think about and respond differently to messages that contain technical and scientific jargon and language. 

Health Literacy Influences Perceptions, Beliefs and Behavior

The study found some interesting results regarding which moms are more likely to have concerns about chemicals in food. For example, those who have lower health literacy scores (indicating limited ability to obtain and understand basic health services) are generally more fearful of chemicals in the food supply than those with higher health literacy scores.

In addition, those with high and low health literacy both expressed general concern about the long-term impact of chemicals in food. However, they put chemicals into perspective, noting that while chemicals were on their minds, the overall taste, value, and freshness of their food are also priorities. Critically important to them is the need to “put food on the table” and to choose foods that their children and families would enjoy. 

Guiding principles should be considered to better inform consumers about food ingredients or naturally occurring compounds in food:

1. Provide a balanced message with information on the benefits, as well as potential unintended consequences of avoiding foods containing certain chemicals, using action-oriented words to help consumers to feel empowered to make informed decisions.

2. Rely less on negative concepts or phrases that evoke fear and uncertainty such as “adverse health effects” and “some concern.”

3. Conduct additional research to understand the relationship between race/ethnicity and risk perception.

Effective use of the principles will help any communicator create a conversation that is understood, resonates with consumers and ultimately build consumer trust.

This study provides important insight into how moms perceive chemicals in food and how those perceptions impact their behavior.  The food and beverage purchase and consumption decision-making process is multi-faceted, and chemicals are not necessarily the most important product characteristic to consumers. While there is still much to learn about chemical perceptions and their impact on decision-making, this study took a step toward bringing moms and the scientific community closer together and to providing helpful risk communication about chemicals in food.

Reference: Petrun, et al. Shaping Health Perceptions: Communicating Effectively about Chemicals in Food. Food Protection Trends. Vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 24-45. January 2015


Henry Chin, PhD is an independent expert in food safety, food chemistry and composition, crisis management and risk management at Henry Chin and Associates.


 Elizabeth Petrun, PhD is a Strategic Communication Liaison at the National Institutes of Health.

 Anthony “Tony” Flood is senior director of food safety and defense communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation.


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