What’s in our food and should we be worried? We spoke to food futurist Jack Bobo from Futurity about consumer behaviour, risk perception and why a little bit of pyridoxine on your cornflakes is nothing to fear.
Despite what we hear in the media or find in our Facebook feed about the dangers that lurk behind our food labels, food has never been safer than it is today. Why is it then that consumers have never been more worried about the food they eat? It’s a question that intrigues Jack Bobo, an expert on consumer behaviour and the future of food. We caught up with Jack and asked for his insights on consumer trust, why not to fear long words on a label and how to address problems related to nutrition and sustainability.
Is food today safe?
By most measures, the global food supply is safer today than it ever has been. From foodborne illnesses to rates of cancer, the dangers that many fear are lurking in their food have actually decreased dramatically over the last few decades.
Then why do some people fear food?
Because of the relative safety of food in terms of foodborne diseases, regulators, food companies and consumers are able to focus on smaller and smaller risks. Some of the fear arises from how our brains process information. Humans tend to remember tragedies like plane crashes or outbreaks of foodborne diseases because they are catastrophic and because they are rare. By contrast, driving may be riskier, which is to say more dangerous, than flying, but we have all driven past too many accidents to let the dangers make us nervous when we get into a car.
Should we only eat ingredients we recognise?
Limiting ingredients to only those that a consumer recognises is a dubious basis for nutrition advice. After all, many ingredients in our food today serve an excellent, beneficial purpose, even those that may sound scary. Beyond flavour and nutrition, some ingredients are preventing spoilage or extending shelf life.
Many ingredients in our food today serve an excellent, beneficial purpose, even those that may sound scary
By improving food safety and reducing food waste, such ingredients are directly contributing to our health and wellness as well as the health of the planet. These are things we should care about. Furthermore, part of the joy of eating is discovering new flavors. As a result, new food ingredients may sound strange at first, like fenugreek or cardamom, but they are a major part of the food experience.
Can you give an example of important (but unrecognisable) ingredient?
Many scary-sounding words are not only quite natural, but good for you as well. Here are a few examples.
Sounds awful, right? In fact, it is the official scientific or chemical name of vitamin B6, which is an essential nutrient to sustain human life. Pyridoxine is important for protein, fat, and carbohydrate metabolism and for the creation of red blood cells and neurotransmitters. Studies have shown that it may even improve your mood and reduce symptoms of depression.
- Ascorbyl palmitate
This is an antioxidant (and a natural compound derived from fat) made from vitamin C and palmitic acid. It is used in foods to prevent spoilage. In your body, it’s simply broken down into its parts. Your body uses the vitamin C, and either burns or stores the energy provided by the fat.
If anyone offers you a cup of oxidane, I encourage you to say yes. It is the official chemical name for water. Remember to rehydrate.
What role do communicators have to reassure consumers?
Science tells us what we can do, but the public tells us what we should do. If we want the public to support food preservatives and strange sounding ingredients, the food industry must work to regain public trust.
Science tells us what we can do, but the public tells us what we should do
This is particularly difficult in an age of rampant misinformation. As a result, science and nutrition communicators have never been more critical to ensure that new innovations, which are desperately needed, are able to be deployed to address some of the very real problems related to nutrition and sustainability.
Jack Bobo is the author of Why smart people make bad food choices and CEO of Futurity, a food foresight company that explores emerging food trends and consumer behaviors in an ever more complex world to improve the health of people and the planet.