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  • Writer's pictureBarbara J. Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Are dangers lurking in our food? Conquer this misconception with truth and respect.

Updated: Jun 11, 2023

Magnifying glass over food package ingredient label

Do you, or others you know or work with, have a fear of a particular food or food component?

If so, why? Is there truly danger lurking?

Is this fear founded or based on a misconception?

Most food fears are misconceptions.

When people avoid certain foods or food components, fearing them as dangerous, even potentially deadly, these fears are mostly based on misconceptions.

This is especially troubling to nutrition professionals because these beliefs often lead people to unnecessarily eliminate perfectly healthy and pleasurable foods and possibly end up spending more on alternatives.

In this post, we’ll explore how we can deal with food fears – misconceptions about supposed dangers lurking in our food and conquer them with truth and respect.

What are the most feared foods and food components? Why are they feared? Are the fears founded?

A common fear is any food product containing ingredients listed by their chemical name. This has resulted in frequent admonitions to avoid eating anything with ingredients you cannot pronounce. The belief is that chemicals are dangerous, therefore, these foods must be dangerous.

This is unfounded because all foods are made up of chemical compounds. Water is dihydrogen monoxide. If a naturally occurring, unprocessed food was labeled using its chemical names, it would be perceived as harmful.

A related fear is ultra-processed food, especially if additives or preservatives are present. In many cases, these additions help keep the food safe to eat for longer by reducing the likelihood of foodborne illness. Compounds added to food have been tested for safety since 1958.

Processed food itself is not to be feared. Processing is simply doing something to the food to make it closer to its consumable form. Grains are made into bread and pasta. Milk is made into cheese. Foods are combined to make sauces and all types of combination foods.

Anything that is “artificial,” or manmade is often feared as dangerous. Sweeteners are one example. Their safety is under constant scrutiny and recommendations for safe consumption are made accordingly. In moderation, they are generally considered safe.

Fearing foods based on how they are grown is another common misconception. This includes foods grown with pesticides as well as fears that food contains Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs. These fears are unfounded based on the absence of risk.

The amount of pesticide residue on both organically and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables is too small to cause harm. Proper cleaning removes it sufficiently. Lists such as “The Dirty Dozen” can do more harm than good by preventing people from eating perfectly safe produce or spending extra money on produce claiming to be safer.

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are often depicted as dangerous. GMOs are those in which genetic material from one organism has been introduced into another to create a transgenic species that is hardier or more nutritious. Common GMO food crops in the US include corn and soybeans. They are rigorously tested for safety and for their impact on the environment.

Have you heard of cibophobia? It is the fear of certain foods. The cause is unknown but thought to be due to a traumatic experience associated with eating a particular food. This fear merits psychological treatment.

What foods should be feared, if any?

When food is spoiled, it is wise to fear the negative consequences of food-borne illness. Nutrition professionals have a mantra for this, “If in doubt, throw it out.” Learn the principles of food safety so you can eat food without this fear.

When someone suffers from a diagnosed food allergy, fearing an anaphylactic reaction is justified. For others, enjoy it, making sure not to expose those who cannot. Food allergies can be diagnosed by a medical professional and should not be self-diagnosed.

Most people with food intolerances can safely enjoy the foods they fear in small quantities. For example, people with lactose intolerance can generally consume nearly a cup of milk at one time, or nearly 2 cups spread out over a day, symptom-free, especially when consumed along with other foods.

When someone has celiac disease, fearing gluten makes sense because gluten elicits an immune response that causes inflammation and damages the lining of the small intestine, which in turn affects nutrient absorption. For others, it is unnecessary to go “gluten-free.”

Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, is perfectly safe for most people. Even those with nonceliac gluten sensitivity can tolerate small amounts. There’s no reason to fear it. Unless a source of gluten has been added, all vegetables, fruits, dairy products, and meats are naturally gluten-free.

Several foods are poisonous if handled or prepared incorrectly, such as fuju, Japanese pufferfish that requires extensive training to learn how to cook. Other poisonous plants and berries must be avoided although they might appear to be edible. These are naturally occurring dangers, not man-made.

Conquer this misconception with truth and respect.

When someone expresses concern or fear that a food is unsafe, respectfully ask why: “What have you heard that leads you to avoid eating _____?”

Identify points of agreement, such as the desire to eat safe food.

Share that all living things are made up of chemical compounds.

Explain the principles of exposure and risk. Assure them that food components are extensively studied for safety. Natural is not always safe and artificial is not always dangerous.

Excessive amounts of nearly any food or beverage, even water, are detrimental. Always consider the dose. Unfounded fear of certain foods is one of many common misconceptions about food and nutrition. In last week’s post, we explored the good food - bad food misconception.

In next week’s post, we will explore the misconception that nutrition experts never agree and that much of the research about food and nutrition is conflicting.

A previous post explores numerous reasons why people believe in misconceptions.

“In my food world, there is no fear or guilt, only joy and balance.” ~ Ellie Krieger

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