Acrylamide in foods: Consumers are aware of the risk but are scarcely changing their behaviour at all

The German consumers are well informed about the occurrence of acrylamide in foods and the related health risk. They know that the substance may be found in starch-containing foods like crisps, fried potatoes or chips after roasting, frying and deep frying. They also know that the acrylamide content in a food depends on how it is prepared. One more thing they know is that acrylamide is harmful. Despite all this, only a small proportion of consumers use this knowledge to reduce the risk. This is the result of a BfR survey on the impact of risk communication about acrylamide, which was presented at the final workshop. “The results confirm that risk communication can be successful if the players speak with one voice”, says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. “Consumers are entitled to and expect clear, comprehensible and comprehensive information. But it will take more than information to get consumers to change their habits.” Consumers tend to use this information for their own personal risk-benefit analysis. 

BfR commissioned the study as part of its statutory remit to inform the public at large about the health risks linked to foods, substances and products. The goal of the study was to determine whether the BfR risk communication on acrylamide has reached and influenced the behaviour of consumers. To this end, the Bonn business psychologists Vierboom & Härlen questioned 1,000 representative individuals and conducted 55 interviews with consumers of various ages. Furthermore, they questioned 45 representatives of different media who act as multipliers in the communication of health risks linked to foods.

The outcome: acrylamide in foods is not top of consumers’ personal risk ranking at the present time. Nevertheless, it is present and anchored in the collective awareness. Most consumers know that the substance can be formed during the preparation of certain foods or may be contained in some ready-to-eat products. Acrylamide in food is not, however, seen as a direct threat to their health. Consumers believe that microbial risks like Salmonella or pesticide residues in foods are more dangerous than acrylamide. Overall, the interviewees have a rather down-to-earth attitude towards the problem of acrylamide. They don’t avoid foods that could contain acrylamide but some of the interviewees do now prepare food more carefully according to the motto “golden not charcoaled” to keep the formation of acrylamide to a minimum. Overall the number of consumers who indicate that they have altered their behaviour considerably is relatively small: 30-40 percent. Here, it can be said that anyone who changes his behaviour, is also well-informed. 

Consumers find it hard to cope with the sometimes contradictory and complex flood of information on food safety generated by the media. This is also confirmed by the study. Information from the media is taken into account. However, information from institutions which consumers have faith in is more important. They include first and foremost consumer advice bureaus, also because they are on the spot. Public agencies are only in third place on the “trust scale”. One thing always applies: statements must be clear and unequivocal and permit concrete action. They should be presented in such a way that they facilitate individual risk assessment and decisions. Besides information on the risk, consumers expect advice on how to deal with the risk. This includes, for instance, tips on preparing food or indications of a potentially high level of acrylamide in individual products.

Only few of the interviewed consumers were familiar with BfR as a public agency. And yet, a large majority of the interviewees were of the opinion that it was very important to have an institution that provides clear and simple information based on scientific assessment about the risk of acrylamide, an institution that is uninfluenced by economic, political or social interests. In contrast to the consumers, the media representatives were very familiar with the BfR and indicated that they valued BfR as an institution that they could trust to give them scientifically sound information. 

Overall, the results of the study confirm successful communication of the health risk from acrylamide in foods. This was possible, according to the participants in the final workshop, because institutions which have the consumers’ trust have provided concurring information to the public at large. For BfR it is particularly important for consumers to seek out information primarily from trustworthy institutions on the spot. For the Institute’s risk communication this is a clear sign that it should work even more closely with these “trustworthy institutions”. BfR should also communicate the results of its scientific risk assessments clearly and unequivocally to these important multipliers.

The results of the BfR study will be posted soon on its website.


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