Health & Wellness

Is Facebook feeding your fear of food ingredients?


“Soy causes cancer.” “Gluten may lead to autism.” "There's yoga mat material in your sandwich!” “Sugar feeds cancer!” 

Are your Facebook friends making you afraid to eat? New research in the journal Food Quality and Preference identifies who fears food the most —and it’s probably those of us most addicted to social media. 

In other words, the more we share, the more we scare.

“We’ve been looking at a lot of these food misconceptions,” says food psychologist Brian Wansink, the John S. Dyson Professor or Marketing at Cornell University. “It’s kind of crazy. How do these things get started and get traction without really any evidence at all?”

To understand this, Wansink and his colleagues at the Food and Brand Lab surveyed 1,080 mothers, who have at least two children, about their feelings on high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). People who feared food the most were better educated, but find most of their food facts from Facebook newsfeeds, Twitter, blogs, or friends.

“They tend to be the people who get the most information from ‘like me’ sources,” Wansink says. “When you start to do searches on the Internet you can always find … support.”

In addition to suffering from misconceptions about food, they also feel strongly about sharing these opinions on social media or their own blogs.

“Compared to the general population, they have a higher need to tell other people about their opinion,” he adds. “It ends up unnecessarily causing fear or causes some sort of nervousness.

What their friends think about the new food intel matters more to them than facts, making it tricky to combat misinformation.

“One thing to keep in mind is part of the reason [they share their beliefs] is that they want people to think they are just as sensitive and politically savvy or whatever,” Wansink says. “They are in search of validation.”

It’s possible to change misinformed friends’ minds about food by providing them information about the ingredient’s history and how it is used in foods.

HFCS replaces sugar in many foods at a reduced price, for example. Both sugar and HFCS work the same way in the body. Interestingly, the subjects who had negative feelings toward HFCS were less likely to shell out more money to pay for products with sugar rather than HFCS in them.

Wansink believes that some of these food fears could be quelled with better education about food and functional food labels, which explain what each item does. In other words, just because an ingredient sounds strange doesn't mean it's unsafe for you

“If you know the history or the function of the ingredient it dramatically reduces the fear.” 

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