Moms, “Food Fears” and the Power of the Internet

Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, has published a new study in the journal Food Quality and Preference entitled “Ingredient-Based Food Fears and Avoidance: Antecedents and Antidotes.”  This study, co-authored by Aner Tal and Adam Brumberg, seeks to determine why people – mothers in particular — develop so-called “food fears” about certain ingredients (such as sodium, fat, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, MSG and lean finely textured beef) and what the food industry and government can do about it.

The study’s ultimate conclusion, that “food fears” can be addressed by “providing information regarding an ingredient’s history or the other products in which it is used,” is hardly controversial.  But some other things about this study raise red flags, starting with the fact that what might be entirely legitimate concerns about particular ingredients are uniformly (and patronizingly) characterized as “food fears,” and that the study’s findings have been overblown and mischaracterized not just in the media but in Dr. Wansink’s own public statements about his data.

I haven’t yet mentioned the fact that the study was funded in part by the Corn Refiners Association, the trade group representing manufacturers of the very “food fear” examined, i.e., concerns about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  While the study never takes a position on whether that particular “food fear” is legitimate (and, by the way, I’m totally agnostic on the HFCS vs. sugar question), Wansink’s own statements in the media would certainly be reassuring to anyone worried about HFCS — and that alone is troubling given the CRA’s financial ties to the study. Here’s Wansink speaking to Today:

“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?”

But putting aside CRA’s involvement, I’m far more troubled by Wansink’s and the media’s characterization of the study’s findings.  Here’s the New York Daily News‘ take on the study:

“Fear of food containing controversial ingredients may be fueled by Facebook. A new study suggests that people who avoid additives like MSG, sodium benzoate and pink slime get most of their information from what they see on social media sites and elsewhere on the Internet.”

And here’s Todays summary:

“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.

People who feared food the most were better educated, but find most of their food facts from Facebook newsfeeds, Twitter, blogs, or friends.

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,” [Wansink] adds. “It ends up unnecessarily causing fear or causes some sort of nervousness.”

And in Wansink’s own YouTube video created to promote the study, he tells us that people with “really bad ingredient food fears have three things in common:”

First of all, they tend to hate the foods the product’s in, almost more than the [unintelligible] ingredient itself, meaning they tend to hate potato chips or candy or soft drinks almost more than the ingredients themselves.

Second of all, they get most of their information . . . from the Internet, they look at their favorite websites, they don’t get it from mainstream media and they certainly don’t get it from health care professionals.

The third thing they have in common is that they are much more likely to need social approval.

The problem is, Wansink’s study simply does not support these characterizations of individuals who get their food information from the Internet, and Wansink’s own recap of his study is in some ways as grossly inaccurate as the media reports I cite.  Here’s why.

The Study Did Not Address Social Media At All

In a survey of 1,008 women who had two or more children, the question posed to respondents about where they obtained information about food ingredients did not include the words “Facebook,” “Twitter,” “newsfeed” or even the more general term “social media.” Instead, respondents were simply asked if they obtained such information from “Internet/Online,” an incredibly broad descriptor which could include anything from the sketchiest of blogs to the website of the Institute of Medicine.

So, in fact, the study has nothing at all to say about the role of Facebook, Twitter or other social media per se in stoking “food fears.”

The Study Failed to Distinguish Between Types of Online Media 

Wansink also contrasts what he sees as the largely biased Internet with more trustworthy “mainstream media,” but without acknowledging that almost every local and national news outlet operating in traditional media now also has its own website.  (In fact, where did I find Wansink’s own study, the news coverage about it, and every other citation in this post?  Online, of course.)  Moreover, in this era of ever-growing media segmentation along ideological lines, just because a news source is considered “mainstream” hardly rules out the possibility of political and other biases in its reporting on food-related issues.

So when Wansink says in his video that people with “food fears” “look at their favorite websites, they don’t get [food news] from mainstream media,” he has no basis at all on which to make this key distinction.  Yes, this subset of respondents may turn to the Internet for food news more than they turn to newspapers or television, but once they’re on the Internet we have absolutely no idea if they’re reading the New York Times or the website of an uninformed blogger.

And, by the way, the Pew Research Internet Project finds that Internet use goes up in direct correlation with one’s level of education, which runs counter to the clear implication that only the less informed or less sophisticated person would choose the Internet over more traditional news sources for their food news.

Conclusions About Sharing “Food Fears” on Social Media Are Entirely Unsupported

As noted, Today reports that moms with “food fears” “feel strongly about sharing these opinions on social media or their own blogs,” and Wansink notes that “they have a higher need to tell other people about their opinion.”  In his video, he says such people “are much more likely to need social approval.” (Emphasis mine.)

But while the study did find that “some individuals who avoid ingredients may have a greater need for social approval among their reference group than those with a more moderate view,” the study’s authors were forced to admit that “such effects were small in our sample.”  So Wansink’s “much more likely” characterization is patently false. 

And even if this finding were significant, the supposed need for social approval was not measured by respondents’ use of social media or blogs.  Rather, it was measured using a standard “social desirability” assessment tool that has nothing to do with social media, and also by asking respondents if they agreed with two statements (“It is important to me that my friends know that I buy Organic Foods and Beverages” and “It is important to me that my friends know that I buy Natural Foods and Beverages”), neither of which have anything to do with “food fears” or social media.

So the study did not in any way establish one of the main “hooks” we’re now seeing in news coverage, i.e., that people with “food fears” feel compelled to share these fears with others on Facebook and Twitter.

Those With “Food Fears” Are Not “Haters” of Junk Food

Wansink tells us in his YouTube video that those with “food fears” actually “hate” the product in which the feared ingredient is found more than the ingredient itself.  Specifically, he tells us, the study found that they “tend to hate potato chips or candy or soft drinks almost more than the ingredients themselves.”

Now here’s what Wansink’s study actually found.  Participants were asked to rate the healthfulness of four foods (yogurt, granola, pre-sweetened cereal and cookies).  Some participants were then told that these four products contained HFCS and among that subset, the “healthy” rating went down for yogurt, granola and pre-sweetened cereal, but not for cookies (presumably because cookies are not thought to be healthful in the first place.)

And that’s it.  Not a word in the study about “potato chips, candy or soft drinks.”  Not a word about “hating.”  But Wansink apparently likes this fictional finding so much he mentions it in his video not once, but twice.

What’s Really Going On Here?

Despite a troubling lack of scientific support, Wansink seems intent on using his study to paint an unflattering portrait of those who obtain information about food ingredients online.  These moms are militant “haters” of soda, candy and chips, they are so uninformed that they can be misled by inaccurate online sources, yet they share this false information on social media out of a need to increase their social currency.  Wansink is equally critical of the Internet itself, going so far as to say in his promotional video that “Reading about food ingredients on the Web.  It’s one of the worst things you can do if you want the facts. . . ” (Emphasis mine.)

Why does Wansink seem so intent on demonizing the Internet and social media and those who rely on those outlets for food information?  In the end, who benefits from these characterizations?

To the great consternation of the processed food industry, it is becoming ever more apparent that the Internet and social media are extremely powerful tools for advancing various food-related causes, from aiding grassroots activism, to spreading viral videos promoting sustainable food practices or decrying children’s junk food advertising, to making possible online petitions like the one I started in 2012, which garnered a quarter of a million signatures and within nine days led the USDA to change one of its school food policies.

Indeed, since my 2012 victory, online petitions in particular have become a favored tool among some food activists and, in my observation, petitions which narrowly target a specific food ingredient (what Wansink would no doubt refer to as creating a “food fear”) are far more likely to succeed. That’s because a broadly ambitious but nebulously stated goal (“Corporations: stop putting questionable chemicals in our food!”) will not cause any one company to feel pressured into action, but a highly specific demand targeted at a single entity (“PepsiCo: remove BVO from Gatorade!” or “Kraft: remove artificial yellow food dye from mac-n-cheese!”) effectively puts one company in an uncomfortable hot seat — and offers the company a clear path to acceding to the petitioner’s request if it so chooses.

I accept the criticism leveled at narrowly crafted petitions (including my own in 2012) that, if successful, they can claim only very marginal victories.  But until the food industry loses its current hold over our elected officials, making possible more sweeping changes to our food system, I do believe that even a narrowly focused food petition can have a salutary ripple effect.

When we hear that Gatorade and Kraft mac n’ cheese contain ingredients that are banned in other countries, we start asking questions about FDA’s approval process for food additives. When we learn that slaughterhouse scraps must be treated with ammonium hydroxide to make them fit for human consumption, we start wondering why so many pathogens are on the meat in the first place, raising still larger issues about today’s methods of industrial meat production. Each time a single-ingredient food petition is launched, it lifts the curtain on one small aspect of the American food supply and many people, including those in the media, start asking more pointed questions about what exactly is in our food and how it is made.

The food industry would no doubt prefer a return to the days when it alone controlled the narrative about food ingredients and food processing. Now, though, for better or worse, anyone with a computer can write a blog post, post a video or start an online petition about a food-related issue.  If I ran a food company these days, I’m sure I would be lying awake at night, worried that the next Internet food campaign could have one of my own products in its sights.

So what better way to combat this growing threat than to delegitimize both the message (concerns about ingredients are “crazy” “food fears”) and the medium (seeking food information on the Internet is “the worst thing you can do.”)  It doesn’t hurt to also create an unflattering cartoon of the message’s recipient, the hapless, freaked out “mom:”

Courtesy of Cornell Food and Brand Lab
Courtesy of Cornell Food and Brand Lab

But unfortunately for food companies, the Internet genie is out of the bottle and there’s no turning back.  So instead of commissioning studies that demonize the Internet, social media and/or “moms with food fears,” food companies should pocket that money and instead take to heart the one simple lesson to be gleaned from the many recent successes in Internet food activism:


If a food corporation is currently engaging in any practice or using any ingredient which would not survive public opinion should it ever come to light, that company is taking a serious public relations risk in this new Internet age.

And that, in my view, is the real “food fear” lurking behind Wansink’s latest study.*


* This is not the first time a Wansink study’s findings have been overblown in ways which arguably aid the study’s sponsor.  My school-food-blogging colleague Stacy Whitman offered an excellent critique of a widely publicized Wansink study claiming that school chocolate milk bans, which are supported by many childhood obesity experts but opposed by the dairy industry, are likely to “backfire.”  In addition to refuting several aspects of the study on its own merits, Whitman pointed out that the study had been sponsored by the USDA, which promotes dairy consumption and has ties to MilkPEP, a well-funded milk processors’ marketing group. This photo of Wansink, also shared by Whitman in her post, did nothing to alleviate concerns about a possible pro-dairy bias in the presentation of the study’s data.

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  1. says

    Great response and thank you for taking this on. In this age of rising rates of diabetes, fatty liver disease and obesity, do we really need researchers implying it’s OK for moms to give kids more HFCS instead of less?

  2. brittany says

    Excellent critique!! Blaming the informed consumer for pointing out the dangers in your project by painting her as an uninformed sheep just following the crowd is an excellent way to avoid addressing the REAL issues. You’re right, CONSUMERS WANT TRANSPARENCY and if a company wants to hide in the shadows with shady ingredients and biased studies, don’t be surprised when “the Internet” ‘gangs up’ on it. This also reminds me of the studies on topical steroids about “steroidphobia”! Label something a ‘phobia’ and then you no longer have to discuss it because, well, that person is just ‘phobic’ and can’t be reasoned with.

  3. says

    I really wish we had definitive standards for science reporting. Sadly, this is one of dozens of “studies” out there that is a collection of information and not science.

    This problem is pervasive. I recently found the latest “study” linking autism to something (in this case, pesticides) on Scientific American’s website. This study simply overlaid a map of pesticide use with areas where the mothers of autistic children resided during the prenatal period. Study participants were chosen from a treatment center run by the creators of the study, and “pesticide use” was defined as a one-mile radius from the area of use. The study found that the majority of their students’ mothers had lived within a mile of a farm using pesticides during the prenatal period.

    The study has been widely reported as “science,” with a small caveat at the bottom of the article that “further studies are needed.” The flaw didn’t occur to any of the media reporting on the article (and I note that almost all of the writers clearly bypassed the actual study for the press release.) By this logic, “scientists” could also “show” a correlation between a particular brand of toothpaste and autism simply by figuring out what brand the majority of the children in their program use.

    Using statistical trickery and presenting initial correlative findings as “science” may well be creating paranoia in the general public, but that’s not the fault of the public, who justifiably think that reporters are checking for junk science.

    Thanks for doing that for us, Bettina.

  4. John Ranta says

    Great job in debunking a sloppy, industry funded study. You provide extensive evidence, which is well-cited. The Cornell “scientists” who read your analysis should be embarrassed.

  5. Nicole says

    Loved your article! Thank you for your insight.
    This whole thing smacks a little of the “Mommy Wars” phenomenon that started a few years ago, which was perpetuated by the media (who also coined the term). Same thing for the “Mommy Blogger” idea. Not only are these monikers condescending to the opinions and stories of mothers, they pit us against each other, which diverts our attention from making the world a healthier place for our children (and thereby putting people before profits). And that’s exactly what the powers-that-be are hoping for.

  6. Coolernearlake says

    Sorry, Bettina, but I am NOT at all with you on this one. To me, your reaction to this study seems very defensive. The study really has some interesting things to say about how people react to food information–and you could have focused on that to help your readers become better at judging the real risks that a given food product may pose.

    Let’s say we pick something totally fictional–“pfliffle”–a new fat substitute, derived from a grain. The study says that the very name of the product can make people more or less accepting of it–something you noted in the whole pink slime/lean finely textured beef controversy. The study says that giving people some historical info about a product (“Ancient Sumarians were the first to discover that a primitive form of pfliffle could be extracted from grain by boiling it with an axe handle…”) can help them be more accepting of a product. And it says that people often have more disdain for the market leader in a category (Pfliffle, versus its competitor, Pflud.) So tell people that, and to watch for how it affects their own perceptions!

    I will say that I loved the “Prius effect” mentioned in the study. I just bought a new car, and I had some buyer’s remorse because it wasn’t a Prius but instead a very practical (for my snow belt city) vehicle with all wheel drive and a high ground clearance. Never mind that it has very good environmental credentials–I’m not the cool mom in the Prius right now. Food activism can be like that–if all the other cool moms are complaining about, say, cupcakes in the classroom, who wants to be the outsider mom who is thinking that the real problem with lunch is that the kids don’t have a chance to wash their hands first, or that the school kitchen fridge is from the Eisenhauer administration? Not cool…better to sign the cupcake petition.

    Information from the Internet always has a great potential to be biased. Sorry, but if you hear from a friend that Pfliffle causes tremors, you are going to do an internet search on “Pfliffle health problems” Is that really likely to land you a representative cross section of research on Pfiffle?

    Bettina, I think that your own status as an internet blogger has really clouded your judgment on this one. Of course this study is not perfect and it is certainly not the last word on anything. But it is not an unreasonable look at consumer behavior.

    I am certain my own judgment at the hands of the internet trolls (sorry, every site has a few) will be swift and merciless.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Coolernearlake: I promise I won’t let the trolls (and, thankfully, we have very few around here) pounce on you! :-) I really appreciate your taking the time to share this comment and I just wanted to let you know that I’ll be responding soon. I do have a lot to say in response!

    • brittany says

      “Information from the Internet always has a great potential to be biased. ”


      But we have NO IDEA what Internet sources the survey participants are accessing and basing their so-called ‘fear’ on. It could be WebMD or the Institute of Medicine or actual scientific journal articles accessible online or it could be just some random uninformed blogger. We don’t know and the research does not ask for that information so the way this is being spun has hugely misrepresented the actual results.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      OK, Coolernearlake – I’m back. :-)

      First off, as you saw, this post was over 2,500 words long, which is just ridiculous for any blog post. I’m gratified and amazed that so many of my readers even made it through to the end! But it took me that many words to set up what Wansink was hoping to establish and then make as clear as possible how his study design and data were woefully inadequate to establish his supposed “findings.”

      So yes, the study had some interesting tidbits here and there. But just to be clear, some of tidbits like the “Prius” effect were NOT established here in this study by Wansink, but were merely quoted by Wansink and established by many other, previous studies. (BTW, for those unfamiliar with this term, it’s the idea that people’s purchasing behavior can be influenced by the attitudes of one’s reference group — e.g., buying a Prius to identity oneself with others about the environment.) I suppose the finding that market leaders tend to bear the brunt of negative perceptions is mildly interesting, but the finding that calling HFCS “corn sugar” makes it more palatable to people seems self-evident. (In fact, the study’s sponsor, the CRA, already knew this since it tried hard — and failed — in 2012 to get FDA to let manufacturers refer to HFCS as “corn sugar” on food labeling.) But as none of these “tidbits” were relayed by Wansink in his video or in media reports about the study, they would have only been tangential at best in my already-very-long post.

      Instead, this study, as recapped by Wansink and the media, was supposed to have shown that people with “food fears” get their information from unreliable sites, namely via social media, and that they then share this inaccurate information via social media out of a need to obtain approval from their peer groups. And, as I think I established in (excruciating!) detail, the study proved no such thing, beginning with the truly astounding fact that respondents were never asked in any way about their social media usage.

      So, I know you meant no offense, Coolernearlake, but I have to pretty firmly reject any notion that my “status as an internet blogger has really clouded [my] judgment on this one.” Rather, I think I laid out irrefutably — and regardless of my blogger status — that this study simply did not say what Wansink and others said it did. And I think it’s important to ask the bigger question – as I did in my post – of why Wansink, paid by the CRA, might want to so mislead the public about this study’s alleged findings.

      But while I think we must agree to disagree on this one, I do appreciate your comment here — and you know that I always appreciate it when readers challenge me. So thank you, and please continue to share your views here.

  7. says

    A good friend of mine mentioned this thoughtful post earlier today, and I was looking forward to reading it when I got back tonight from visiting my parents in Iowa.

    These are excellent points, and a number of them I now wish we had better addressed in the article itself. Others were more about how this could have been better addressed with the media, which is also right on target. For nearly 12 years we’ve been doing research on food fears (although no one knows about it other than geeky academics), but this is the first paper that really gained to public interest. Part was due to the media coverage, and part was also due to thoughtful critiques such as yours.

    Given your review and given the excellent review of our Chocolate Milk Research by Stacy Whitman, I think it’s important that we be more measured when we talk with the media.

    If you would have the time, I would appreciate your insights on other ways we could move the nutrition dial forward in the topics we research and the approach we take. If you would have time, Sandra at could find a time to visit that fits with your schedule.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Dr. Wansink:

      I’ll certainly take you up on this invitation to discuss the study and my critique, and thank you for your comment here.

      – Bettina

  8. says

    Of course the food industry has to try to call out the people with so called “food fears”. Where the real problem lies is the fact that consumers even need to have fears about what is in their food to begin with. The other real problem is American’s perception on what food is. Why does mass media continually mislead consumers into purchasing highly processed inferior food, when they should be pushing consumers to buy real food to begin with? The food supply has been a continual downhill slope, filled with misleading and in accurate information for decades and finally people are waking up to the fact that everything they thought they knew about food (that likely came from mass media) isn’t true! Trying to say people have “food fears” now is ludacris. They aren’t fears, they are reality. Reality that my children’s generation isn’t supposed to outlive their parents. Why? Because we have let mass media influence us way too much. My husbands grandfather actually just said to me the other day “I heard white bread is actually better for you then whole wheat.” This is a prime example of what mass media does. Take 1 piece of information and turn it into something else. What I suppose he was referring to are the enriched grains containing more nutrients then stone ground whole wheat. Sure, maybe they enrich white bread to contain more nutrients then the real stuff but in no way, shape, or form is white bread better then a whole grain sprouted wheat bread that contains nothing other then the whole grains themselves. Whatever research this guy is claiming to have is absolute bullsh&t and we need to ignor people like him and continue to educate ourselves about food ingredients and why we need to avoid certain stuff. This is my life, and by no means am I letting food companies poison me or my kids!

  9. Susan says

    This is so ironic! I get almost all of my information from the internet–mostly from subscribed to, peer-reviewed, academic journals. As a professor at a public institution I have access to 4 million dollars worth of these journals. This study is simply stupid and is an even worse problem than the author seems to think internet information is. Maybe Dr. Wansink is a member of the congressional committee that thinks Americans are too stupid for GMO labeling?

    • coolernearlake says

      Did you also read this study? Here’s what it actually said, “Although it is not clear whether people with ingredient food fears are more likely to seek support and confirmation from the Internet, or whether information from the Internet instead initiated these fears to begin with, this basic association is a critical one. Future research may attempt to further investigate the role of information sources in either originating or in sustaining and supporting ingredient fears.” Not exactly “simply stupid” in my opinion. You go on to say “the author seems to think internet information is [simply stupid.]” I’m going to suggest that your failure to read this study may be exactly why this scientist is going to have plenty more to study in the future.

  10. Marrett says

    This study does nothing but discredit the grassroots movements that will hopefully lead to food safety and labeling reform in this country. I read this as a call to action — do not allow bogus studies to derail us from wanting to know the truth. Food companies are getting scared, and are getting desperate. Keep going!!!

  11. says

    Instead of figuring out why “mothers” find the need to feed thier children REAL FOOD not additives, HOW ABOUT some real studies on the LONG-TERM impact of High Fructose Corn Syrup (and other additives) have on our bodies. What is wrong with baking/cooking from scratch? Why is the”Main Stream Media” so afraid of people thinking for themselves and seeking out natural ingredients. Sooner or later the market is going to have to change. We don’t want unnecessary fillers in our food, or food make with pesticides sprayed on them. Most Americans are over weight, and need a healthier choice.


  1. […] If a food corporation is currently engaging in any practice or using any ingredient which would not survive public opinion should it ever come to light, that company is taking a serious public relations risk in this new Internet age. And that, in my view, is the real "food fear" lurking behind Wansink's latest study. _____ A longer version of this post originally appeared on The Lunch Tray. […]

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