By: Elizabeth Rahavi, RD Date: 3/9/11
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines fear as “to be afraid or apprehensive of something.” Food on the other hand, gives us energy and helps to sustain our day-to-day lives. It almost seems like an oxymoron that someone would “fear food.” Yet, when we are exposed to media stories like, “Obesity: Like the New Smoking,” “Is it healthy to drink diet soft drinks? The answer is fizzy,” or “The six-legged meat of the future,” it is not surprising that many people find themselves apprehensive or even fearing food. In reality the US food system is one of the safest in the world. This result is due to a coordinated effort between regulatory agencies, the food industry, health professionals, and others along the food supply chain, including consumers. While we have many safe guards in place to help us manage risks, there is no such thing as zero risk when it comes to food, or anything for that matter! Read on to see what influences consumer risk perception and what we can do to help reassure people of the safety of our food supply.
Why Do People Deem Something Risky?
Often, people deem something ‘risky’ based on purely subjective reasons, without weighing the actual risk against potential benefits. They base their judgments on what they hear, how they process this information, what they conclude, and what they can actually do about it. For example, people may avoid “foods that contain ingredients they cannot pronounce” because they are unfamiliar with the ingredient and perceive avoidance an easier action than facing the unknown. However, certain ingredients with complex names, like polyunsaturated fat or alpha-tocopherol, are necessary to support health. That benefit outweighs any potential risk, but it is a much harder message to get across. Some common themes that influence consumer risk perception include:
• If the media is reporting it, it must be bad. Consumer risk decisions are often based on how much media attention a topic is receiving.
• When in doubt, it is safer to avoid. People may believe that avoidance is better than action. However, this can get people into trouble when the benefit of action outweighs the risks of doing nothing. For example, the benefit of pregnant women consuming fish twice a week during pregnancy to increase intake of omega-3s outweighs the risk of consuming methyl-mercury in fish.
• I’ve always done it this way. Fear and stress are emotions that steer people toward familiarity and constancy. Traditions and customs, while beneficial, may also increase risk. Consider the tradition in Europe to greet friends and families with a kiss on each cheek. During an influenza outbreak, this custom may but people at increased risk of catching the flu.
• That couldn’t happen to me. People may tend to underestimate or feel more optimistic about their risk.
• If I worried about that I might as well stop living. People who feel like they have a low sense of control might believe that there is nothing that they can do to reduce their risk and therefore don’t take action.
How can communicators break through these common misperceptions?
According to David Ropiek, author of How Risky Is It Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts, risk communication that acknowledges and respects the affective motivators which underlie people’s concerns is likely to be more successful in helping people make more informed choices about the risks they face than dismissing such perceptions as “irrational” because they are not solely fact-based.
Like any food and nutrition message, effective risk communication messages should be tailored to the audience and include practical steps that can be taken to minimize risk. It is important to understand our audiences and what has prompted their “fear of food” in the first place. Then we can better communicate the benefits provided us by our food supply, putting the risk is perspective. Use of plain language and taking care to address common misperceptions is also a key to sound risk communication. To learn more see: A Practical Guide to Risk Communication.
Do you have practical techniques to help overcome fear?