For the second year in a row, more than a third of consumers participating in the annual food industry survey rated chemicals in food as their most important food safety issue. Every year for the past decade, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) has surveyed more than 1,000 Americans aged 18-80, to gain insight into their attitudes towards food and diet. Although the way they have polled on these topics has changed over the years, the research shows a clear and steady rise in the number of Americans concerned about chemicals in their food.
In 2016, IFIC broke down the ‘chemicals in food’ option from 2015 into more specific concerns: chemicals in food (arsenic, mercury, BPA); carcinogens or cancer-causing chemicals in food; and food additives and ingredients (caffeine, MSG, flavors, colors, preservatives, etc.).
For 38 percent of the respondents, these three specific sub-categories of chemicals in food combined were the most important food safety issue, a two-point jump since last year. And these concerns are being felt in the market: 40% of consumers who stated that chemicals were of great concern to them reported changing their eating habits.
Growing concern driving food supply chain changes
Consumers’ growing concern about chemicals reflects an increased awareness about the harmful effects they may have on human health and, importantly, a shift in how consumers are defining the issue of “safety” in food. As we reported a few months ago, a report from Deloitte, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association found that consumers are increasingly concerned about the short-term health effects of chemicals in food (e.g., no toxins) as well as the long-term effects (e.g. no carcinogens).
To their credit, the food industry is beginning to respond to these concerns. Grocers, restaurant chains and food manufacturers have reformulated products worth tens of billions of dollars to eliminate artificial colors and flavors. Food manufacturers and restaurants have followed the lead of retailers such as Kroger, ALDI, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, each of which has removed a long list of additives from their private brands.
Shoppers are showing they have an appetite for these reformulated products. Less than a year after announcing it was removing artificial flavors and colors from most of its cereals, General Mills reported a 6% growth in retail sales of reformulated cereals.
The latest IFIC survey and others show that consumers are likely to keep demanding safer food that won’t harm their short-term or long-term health. While reformulation takes work, options for colors, flavors and other substances are available to produce appealing, tasty and safe food. Forward-looking companies that are already making these changes are reshaping the food supply chain, and in the process, are helping to regain the public’s trust in their products.