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Public Perspectives on Food Risks

The following is a study detailing public perceptions on the health and safety of GMOs.

The American public is closely divided over the degree of health risk posed by additives present in the foods we regularly eat. Majorities see at least some risk from eating food produced with common agricultural and processing practices, including meat from animals given hormones or antibiotics, produce grown with pesticides and foods with artificial ingredients. And about half of the public says that foods with genetically modified (GM) ingredients are worse for one’s health than foods without, according to a new nationally representative survey from Pew Research Center.

Today’s food landscape requires consumers to navigate shifting terrain given the flow of new food technologies and ongoing debates among food scientists, industry groups and health care professionals over which foods are safe and how what we eat can have a lasting impact on one’s health.

For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently called for regulatory changes due to potential adverse effects on child development from food additives. And major food purveyors have been at odds over how to respond to consumer demand for healthier foods with more transparent labeling amid a changing regulatory environment.

The Pew Research Center survey finds the U.S. public of two minds about food additives. Roughly half say the average person faces a serious health risk from food additives over their lifetime (51%) while the other half believes the average person is exposed to potentially threatening additives in such small amounts that there is no serious risk (48%). It’s important to keep in mind that the survey asks respondents for their views about food additives as a whole. There are more than 10,000 additives used to enhance the shelf life, appearance, taste or nutritional value of foods, including over 3,000 that are “generally recognized as safe” – a term defined by the Food and Drug Administration, the main federal agency charged with regulating food safety.1

Seven-in-ten Americans (70%) believe that science has had a mostly positive effect on the quality of food in the United States. But when asked about one area where new developments in biotechnology are changing the possibilities for how we grow and consume foods, the public is closely divided. Roughly half of Americans (49%) believe that foods with GM ingredients are worse for one’s health than non-GM foods, while 44% say such foods are neither better nor worse and 5% say they are better for one’s health.

In a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, 39% of Americans said GM foods were worse for health compared with non-GM foods. The uptick in concern about GM foods in 2018 is primarily among those with low levels of science knowledge; 52% of those with low science knowledge on a nine-item index say GM foods are worse for health than non-GM foods, up 23 percentage points from 29% in 2016. But there is no shift in beliefs among those with high science knowledge; 38% in this group say GM foods are worse for health, as did 37% in 2016.

The meaning of terms such as “genetically modified” is evolving in the regulatory world. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has ruled that some uses of gene editing techniques can be indistinguishable from traditional breeding methods; those plants will not be considered genetically modified and therefore won’t be subject to regulation. The European Court of Justice took a broader approach to classification, ruling that gene-edited crops should be classified as genetically modified and, as such, subject to regulation. The Pew Research Center survey referenced only foods with “genetically modified ingredients” in order to capture common usage.

The new survey finds several patterns in people’s beliefs about food additives as well as GM foods. First, there are consistent gender differences in public views about these food issues. On average, more women than men are concerned about potential health risk from food additives and from genetically modified foods. Second, there is an inverse relationship between how much people know about science generally, based on a nine-item index of factual knowledge, and their beliefs about the health risk of foods with additives as well as GM foods. People with low science knowledge tend to express more concern about the health risk from these food groups compared with those high in science knowledge.

Third, public divisions over these food issues appear to reflect personal philosophies about the relationship between food and well-being. One indicator of such “food ideologies” is the amount of concern people have about the issue of GM foods. Those who care a great deal about the GM foods issue are much more likely to think GM foods are worse for one’s health, as might be expected, and they see a higher risk to health from four types of food additives: artificial coloring, artificial preservatives, pesticides used on crops and meat produced from animals given antibiotics or hormones. But while there are deep political divides over some issues connected with science – notably climate and energy issues – Democrats and Republicans hold broadly similar beliefs about potential health effects from food additives and GM foods, a finding consistent with previous Center studies on food issues.

Read the full survey findings in the Pew Research Center.