Chemical Risk: Understanding the Consumer Experience and Building Trust

Brent Kobielush (TAG)
Contributing Writer

Modern impressions of the word ‘chemical’ are often negative. Consumers often express disgust, fear, and other negative emotions. Data suggests that consumers have many misconceptions about chemicals, which drive negative feelings about chemicals. Some of the confusion may stem from how the food industry characterizes chemicals. For example, an ingredient deck can be misleading. Consumers may perceive a shortlist of only four or five ingredients to be a cleaner food, but in fact, there are harmful substances that only require four or five ingredients, and there are healthy foods that include dozens of ingredients.  


Several factors are driving the fear that many consumers experience, including:

  • Lack of education 

  • Media fear-mongering 

  • Mixed messaging 

  • Poor communication from scientists to consumers

Returning to the basics can help illustrate a better picture of the role of chemicals in everyday life. Some of the worst purveyors of risk assessment are the scientists themselves. It is crucial to differentiate between hazard assessment and risk assessment. Creating an approach to help scientists articulate the risks to consumers could go a long way toward reducing the growing levels of chemophobia. In this blog, we will discuss: 

  • An Example of Chemophia: What is MSG? 

  • How Do You Identify Chemical Risk? 

  • What Drives Consumer Trust? 

  • What Are Some Commonly Asked Questions About Chemophobia and Risk? 


An Example of Chemophia: What is MSG? 

For years, scientists considered the four tastes to be salt, sweet, bitter, and sour. In 2002, scientists determined that human tongues also had taste receptors for umami, often described as a savory taste resulting from the consumption of glutamate. Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda first described umami in 1908. He developed a crystalline form of the flavor and filed a patent for the umami flavor, known as monosodium glutamate (MSG). However, in the 1960s, many argued that MSG was unhealthy and even dangerous, despite the lack of research. For years, people associated MSG with adverse health outcomes. But MSG is naturally present in many foods people eat, including tomatoes left to ripen on the vine. Researchers conducted tests on the umami measurements and found the highest concentrations in the center and the seeds of the tomato. The umami amounts increase when the tomato is allowed to ripen naturally on the vine. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assert that MSG is safe to consume. Yet significant portions of the public still have persistent concerns that MSG is a toxic or unhealthy ingredient.  


How Do You Identify Chemical Risk? 

Many believe that risk is the result of a hazard or how people perceive a hazard, but a better way to describe risk would be: 

Risk = Hazard x Exposure 

FSMA training categorizes risk as the occurrence or the likelihood of occurrence multiplied by the severity of the hazard. However, while the probability of a hazard occurring may be very low, there is no such thing as zero risk. As a result, manufacturers must have a plan for assessing and managing risk. To handle risks effectively, manufacturers need to understand the difference between chemical risk assessments, risk management, and risk communication. 


What Is a Chemical Risk Assessment?  

Science may start the conversation, but many people and institutions are involved in the entire risk paradigm. There is no such thing as zero risk, but often risk assessment is simple mathematics. If the likelihood of exposure to a hazardous chemical is low, then the risk is also low, even if the chemical is very hazardous.  


What Is Risk Management? 

Manufacturers must take action if they deem a product unsafe. Global regulatory compliance helps determine the best course of action. Regulatory bodies help manufacturers decide whether to recall the product and under which class. Products can be safe and comply with regulations but not meet customer specifications. Some manufacturers make decisions based on consumer perceptions even when a product meets specifications. However, pulling a product based on perceptions surrounding chemicals could perpetuate myths about products’ safety.  


What Is Risk Communication? 

Determining what and how to communicate can be a challenge. Manufacturers may struggle with identifying who the audience should be. Sometimes, no communication is the answer. Another point to consider is that food industry workers are also consumers and vital in communicating risk. Having a more robust conversation with employees and food industry workers can nurture a healthier food safety culture. 


What Drives Consumer Trust? 

The Center for Food Integrity found that shared values are three to five times more important to build trust than demonstrating competence. Consumers want to feel those involved in the food industry have the same values as them. To gain consumer trust, experts need to effectively communicate shared values to connect with consumers. It is important for consumers to understand that leaders in the food industry care about their safety and wellbeing and are actively working to protect them. 


What Are Some Commonly Asked Questions About Chemophobia and Risk? 

 Q: What are some recommendations for addressing the questions of “the dirty dozen” pesticide residues on produce? 

A: It’s essential to find a way to communicate risk to those without a science background to reframe the concern. The EPA sets limits for compliance, but many may not trust the EPA. Help people understand the units of measurement. For example, one part per trillion equates to one second per every 32,000 years. Examining the residue amounts found in the context of safe levels established by organizations like the EPA and WHO helps to illustrate the actual risk level. 


Q: What about Proposition 65? Is it helpful or harmful? 

A: Proposition 65 is a Right-to-Know law. It has more to do with the right to know what ingredients are included and what is associated with a given product rather than risk. The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has often applied Proposition 65 using a precautionary approach rather than a risk-based approach.  


Q: What are manufacturers doing to successfully manage risk assessment and messaging about labeling and chemical composition? 

A: Labeling laws shape the messaging from manufacturers. The real danger of chemophobia is diluting the messaging about actual chemical safety risks. It’s crucial to focus on these real risks to address making food safe for everyone. Many of the most potent toxins are naturally occurring and organic. However, consumers may weigh these risks far more heavily than deserved when messaging focuses on far less risky hazards.