With so many reports in the news media about the dangers associated with certain food ingredients and packaging materials, the public is now understandably suspicious and distrustful of what they eat, according to a food-safety expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Americans are becoming more risk averse when it comes to their food supply, suggested Martin Bucknavage, Extension food-safety specialist.

"Public-opinion polls have shown there is an increasing concern in consumers' perception of risks associated with chemical food hazards," he said. "It is difficult for the experts to explain all of the details of the technical risk assessments done on these chemicals, and so it is understandable that consumers are confused when they see various reports warning us about the risks of these chemicals in food.

Bucknavage noted that most people see stories about risky chemicals in foods reported in the news media. He contends that how these stories are written affects consumer perception of the danger presented by the chemicals. And in addition to television and print news, many people now use the Internet to find information.

"On the Web, we can find the whole gamut of information, from the scientific studies themselves to the totally unscientific opinion pieces," Bucknavage said. "It is difficult in some cases to tell fact from fiction. Some people get freaked out about what they are eating."

He cited several examples in recent headlines. "First, a well-known soup maker recently decided to stop using cans that contain a chemical called BPA in the lining. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration initially concluded that BPA was not a risk, but after public pressure, the agency decided to "re-evaluate the risk associated with BPA."

Second, a controversy is brewing about the caramel dye that gives cola soft drinks their brown color. A chemical, 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MI, is formed when the coloring is manufactured. According to the FDA, the levels found in soda are well below any concern.

"An FDA spokesman said recently that a consumer would have to consume well over 1,000 cans of soda a day to reach the doses administered in the studies that have shown links to cancer in rodents," Bucknavage said. "However, a prominent consumer watchdog group does not agree. Its leaders have petitioned the FDA to have 4-MI banned."

How do the risks associated with certain chemicals in our food stack up against nonfood related risks? For the consumer, Bucknavage believes, this question is difficult to answer.