State of the art in benefit–risk analysis: Consumer perception

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This page (including the files available for download at the bottom of this page) contains a draft version of a manuscript, whose final version is published and is available in the Food and Chemical Toxicology 50 (2012) 67–76. If referring to this text in scientific or other official papers, please refer to the published final version as: Ø. Ueland, H. Gunnlaugsdottir, F. Holm, N. Kalogeras, O. Leino, J.M. Luteijn, S.H. Magnússon, G. Odekerken, M.V. Pohjola, M.J. Tijhuis, J.T. Tuomisto, B.C. White, H. Verhagen: State of the art in benefit–risk analysis: Consumer perception. Food and Chemical Toxicology 50 (2012) 67–76 doi:10.1016/j.fct.2011.06.006 .


Editing State of the art in benefit–risk analysis: Consumer perception

Authors and contact information

Ø. Ueland, correspondence author
(Tel.: +47 649 70494; fax: +47 649 70333. E-mail address:
(Nofima, Osloveien 1, N-1430 Ås, Norway)
H. Gunnlaugsdottir
(Matís, Icelandic Food and Biotech R & D, Vínlandsleið 12, 113 Reykjavík, Iceland)
F. Holm
(FoodGroup Denmark and Nordic NutriScience, Rugaardsvej 14, A2, Rugaard, DK-8400 Ebeltoft, Denmark)
N. Kalogeras
(Maastricht University, School of Business and Economics, P.O. Box 616, 6200 MD Maastricht, The Netherlands)
O. Leino
(National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), P.O. Box 95, FI-70701 Kuopio, Finland)
J.M. Luteijn
(University of Ulster, School of Nursing, Shore Road, Newtownabbey (Jordanstown), BT37 0QB, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom)
S.H. Magnússon
(Matís, Icelandic Food and Biotech R & D, Vínlandsleið 12, 113 Reykjavík, Iceland)
G. Odekerken
(Maastricht University, School of Business and Economics, P.O. Box 616, 6200 MD Maastricht, The Netherlands)
M.V. Pohjola
(National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), P.O. Box 95, FI-70701 Kuopio, Finland)
M.J. Tijhuis
(Maastricht University, School of Business and Economics, P.O. Box 616, 6200 MD Maastricht, The Netherlands)
(National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), P.O. Box 1, 3720 BA Bilthoven, The Netherlands)
J.T. Tuomisto
(National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), P.O. Box 95, FI-70701 Kuopio, Finland)
B.C. White
(University of Ulster, Department of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, School of Biomedical Sciences, Cromore Road, Coleraine, BT52 1SA, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom)
H. Verhagen i,j
(National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), P.O. Box 1, 3720 BA Bilthoven, The Netherlands)
(Maastricht University, NUTRIM School for Nutrition, Toxicology and Metabolism, P.O. Box 616, 6200 MD Maastricht, The Netherlands)
(University of Ulster, Northern Ireland Centre for Food and Health (NICHE), Cromore Road, Coleraine, BT52 1SA, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom)

Article info

Article history: Available online 12 June 2011


Benefit and risk perception with respect to food consumption, have been a part of human daily life from beginning of time. In today’s society the food chain is long with many different types of actors and low degree of transparency. Making informed food choices where knowledge of benefits and risks is part of the decision making process are therefore complicated for consumers. Thus, to understand how consumers perceive benefits and risks of foods, their importance in relation to quality evaluations are aspects that need to be addressed. The objective of this paper is to discuss state of the art in understanding consumer perceptions of benefits and risks of foods in order to improve understanding of consumer behaviour in the food domain.

Risks may be associated with both acute and long term consequences, some of which may have serious effects. Perceived risks are connected to morbidity and mortality along two dimensions relating to unknown risk, and to which extent the risk is dreaded by the consumer. Unfamiliar, uncertain, unknown, uncontrollable, and severe consequences are some factors associated with risk perception. Novel food processing techniques, for instance, score high on several of these parameters and are consequently regarded with suspicion and perceived as risky by consumers.

On a daily basis, benefits of foods and food consumption are more important in most consumers’ minds than risks. Benefits are often associated with food’s ability to assuage hunger, and to provide pleasure through eating and socialising. In addition, two main categories of benefits that are important for acceptance of product innovations are health and environmental benefits.

Benefit and risk perception of foods seem to be inversely correlated, so when something is perceived as being highly beneficial, it is correspondingly perceived as having low risk. However, slightly different paths are used in the formation of these perceptions; benefit perception is based on heuristics and experience, while risk perception is to a larger extent the result of cognitive information processing.

Consumers are particularly conservative when it comes to perception and acceptance of foods compared to other products. Benefit-risk evaluations tend to be skewed towards acceptance of all that is traditional and well-known (benefits), and rejection or suspicion towards anything that is novel or highly processed (risks) regardless of actual risk. Knowledge of how consumers perceive benefits and risks of foods, may contribute to understanding benefit-risk perception in other areas related to personal, societal or environmental perspectives.


Consumer behaviour, Risk perception, Benefit perception


Every day is filled with choices for the consumer; from getting up in the morning having to decide what to wear, eat, and do, to making major decisions with far-reaching consequences. When a choice is made it is a result of weighing of alternatives, and many choices are results of trade-offs between perceived benefits and risks.

Consumers’ benefit perception of food products has to do with all attributes that make the product attractive to the consumer for one reason or another. The benefits may be both unconsciously and consciously perceived. Risk perception of foods, on the other hand, is associated with adverse consequences of food consumption and is most commonly influenced by cognitive processing of information provided by third parties and deliberations related to one’s own situation. Cognitive processing of information implies using conscious deliberations of known aspects of the risks (Bettman et al., 1998).

Historically, food acquisition and survival has been the most important activity for human beings and an activity of extreme benefits and risks. The most obvious benefit from eating was continued survival of the individual and the community, while the food gathering process of hunting and sampling of edible growths were fraught with dangers and possibly death. Still, the benefits for all outweighed the risks for the individual. As food provisioning improved the major and severe risks were reduced, and in today’s food stores there is no risk of food fighting back. Thus, today the primary drivers in a food choice situation are normally associated with liking and context; which food product is best liked and suited to the occasion, while risk evaluation is not usually foremost in consumers’ minds (European Commission, 2006; Grunert, 2002). Food choices are made with a minimum of effort on the consumers’ part and are mostly based on heuristics, strategies for problem solving associated often with consumers’ expertise, search costs, and previous experience with the product (Cardello et al., 2000; Dimara and Kalogeras, 2001; Grunert, 2002). Once the consumer starts thinking about what he or she is doing in a food choice situation, perceived benefits and risks as well as the imprecise concept of food quality take on major importance. Food quality may be expressed by food technologists using precise measurements and definitions. However, in consumers’ minds food quality is a relative concept involving characteristics of the product ranging from sensory properties, food technology, food safety, application, price and brand to other value-adding attributes (Grunert, 2002). Value-adding attributes may relate to benefits achieved from consuming the product such as absence of sickness and/or better health. Following the reasoning that attributes associated with food quality are preferred by consumers, one could expect that all risk factors are detrimental to perceived quality.

However, risk factors can be present irrespective of perceived food quality. For example, confectionary may have exquisite quality attributes, but there is a risk of obesity if the product is consumed in excessive amounts. Thus, to understand how consumers perceive benefits and risks of foods, their importance in relation to quality evaluations are aspects that need to be addressed.

As conscious benefit and risk evaluations have less impact in food choice situations where eating quality is mostly considered, their importance to consumers become more evident in situations where food consumption is set in a larger perspective. Overall, benefits and risks of foods have impact on consumers’ health and wellbeing (Sigman-Grant, 2008; Tijhuis et al., In press). However, these effects may be unknown to the consumers, or the consumers may choose to pay them no attention. Being unaware of benefits and risks of foods has both short- and long-term consequences for the consumer. In the short run for instance, lack of knowledge of food risks may cause food poisoning. In the long run, lack of knowledge about food or diet composition can lead to obesity and food-related diseases, or reduce the food’s health potential. Furthermore, it is easier for the consumer not to pay attention to knowledge relating to benefits and risks when there are no immediate tangible effects of food choice and consumption. In addition, food production has environmental, ethical and societal consequences which influence consumers’ perceptions of benefits and risks of foods (Finucane and Holup, 2005; Frewer, 1998; Saba and Messina, 2003; Siegrist et al., 2008). Understanding consumers’ knowledge and perception of benefits and risks of foods is of major importance to promote better health and avoid undesirable consequences (Korzen et al., 2011).

The aim of this paper is to discuss state of the art in understanding consumer perceptions of benefits and risks of foods in order to improve understanding of consumer behaviour in the food domain.

The paper will first discuss consumer perception of food risks followed by benefit perception and trade-offs between the two. Food products and production methods that are particularly subject to benefit-risk evaluations are discussed.

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Fig. 1. Dimensions of risk perception: Technology and dread. Adapted from Finucane and Holup, 2005; Fischhoff et al., 1978; Gaskell et al., 2004.

Risk perception

In order to avoid undesirable consequences and effects of food intake for consumers, understanding food risk and safety is central to all food production. Focus in these investigations has particularly been on technical and analytical aspects of risks and hazards (Renwick et al., 2003). However, part of successful benefit-risk analysis of foods also includes understanding of consumers’ behaviour and, hence, their perception of risks and benefits (Cope et al., 2010; Miles and Frewer, 2001; van Dijk et al., 2008; van Kleef et al., 2006). Investigations have mostly been focused on understanding consumer perception of risks, and these investigations have increased in the later decades as food has been involved and focused in many food crises (e.g., mad cow disease, avian influenza, swine flu) and negative contexts such as food poisoning or events with deadly outcomes (Knox, 2000).

Dimensions of risk perception

In essence, perceived risks are connected to morbidity and mortality. Two main dimensions have been shown to drive risk perception; relating to a technology axis and a severity of consequence or outcome axis (Fig. 1) (Finucane and Holup, 2005; Fischhoff et al., 1978; Gaskell et al., 2004). The technology factor relates to unknown risk that can be described to be new or unfamiliar, unobservable, unknown and with delayed consequences. The other factor measures risk perception along a ‘‘dread’’, or severity, axis; to which extent the risk is dreaded by the consumer by being fatal, uncontrollable, high risk to future generations, not easily reduced, involuntary and potentially catastrophic (Finucane and Holup, 2005; Fischhoff et al., 1978).

Exposure to a perceived risk will normally reduce impact of unfamiliarity on the technology axis, but it has been found that in addition to the unknown and severity dimensions, a third dimension relating to number of people being exposed has been shown to contribute independently to the public perception of risks (Sparks and Shepherd, 1994) although to a lesser extent (Fife-Schaw and Rowe, 1996).

Thus, risks can be placed in hierarchies depending on how severe or important they are perceived to be by consumers. In such hierarchies, food related risks have not scored very high compared to other risks (Fischhoff et al., 1978). Although use of pesticides, which belongs to the food production chain, is dreaded by consumers (Fischhoff et al., 1978; Slovic and Robert, 2010).

Factors influencing risk perception

Risk perception is most commonly influenced by cognitive processing of information provided by third parties and deliberations related to one’s own situation. In this process there may be both a rational evaluation of risk as well as an affective and irrational, or noncognitive, evaluation of risk (Leikas et al., 2007; Slovic et al., 2004). Consumers’ reactions to food crises such as the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), the Belgian dioxin scandal, and the Avian flu are examples of how irrational elements can contribute to risk perception. For instance, although the probability to contract Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, the human variation of BSE, is extremely small, concerned reactions of consumers occurred globally. These were driven by the consumers’ perceptions, in particular, in the incipient phases of the BSE crisis. In these cases consumers’ risk awareness soared, independent of personal risk, and was followed by a marked decline in consumption of foods perceived to be in the danger zone (European Commission, 2006; Knox, 2000; Verbeke, 2001; Verbeke et al., 2007a; Verbeke and Viaene, 1999). A totally different type of risk incidents are bad personal experiences caused by sensory or emotional input, such as a bad taste incident, which are less important in the formation of a risk perception library (Kubberød, 2005).

Consumers’ perceptions of risk are often not consistent with actual risk of exposure or sustaining harm. Indeed, factors important to consumers may be totally irrelevant to the hazard, and exposure to these factors may be negligible, while on the other hand, some real hazards are not perceived as threatening at all (Verbeke et al., 2007a). In a study by Verbeke et al. (2007b), consumers inferred that wild salmon were healthier to eat than farmed salmon because they were free, while there are indications that wild fish are more susceptible to heavy metal contamination due to higher exposure to contaminants in the seas than there are for farmed salmon (Verbeke et al., 2007b). Risks connected to one’s own lifestyle are often downplayed compared to risks connected to society; the control aspect plays an important role in the formation of optimistic bias among consumers (Leikas et al., 2009). A risk which is perceived to be under your own control is more acceptable and less uncertain, and a higher danger level may be acknowledged. For instance, driving a car is not perceived as risky in the same way as flying is. Likewise, consumers consider the home a safe place to be partly because of familiarity, because of own control of surroundings, and because people normally do not make their homes intentionally hazardous. Consequently, a halo effect may be that the perceived safe feeling is transferred to all aspects and activities of the home. Statistics show that home is the most dangerous place to be for sustaining injuries (Ueland, 2001) and, similarly, food safety and handling practices are perceived as more safe at home than in other food handling areas although a majority of food poisoning incidents are the results of food preparation at home (Fischer and Frewer, 2009; Worsfold and Griffith, 1995).

Experts and consumers have different ways of dealing with risks; experts being more focused on factual information and technical specifications, while consumers include emotional and personal perspectives as well as contextual and relevance evaluations (Bruhn, 2005; Hagemann and Scholderer, 2009; Macfarlane, 2002; Verbeke et al., 2007a). This difference in risk perception between experts and lay people poses challenges in risk communication, particularly if what the expert communicates triggers risk perception instead of addressing the issue the expert think the consumer is worried about (Frewer et al., 1996a; Frewer et al., 2003b; Gaskell et al., 2004; Hagemann and Scholderer, 2009; Scholderer and Frewer, 2003; Verbeke et al., 2005). For instance, communicating about a new production technique may raise new questions whether the production process is necessary instead of relieving consumers’ uncertainty and lack of knowledge about the process itself. Many studies show that consumers are sceptical to food industry in general, and to highly processed food products in particular (Leikas et al., 2009; Verbeke et al., 2010a; Verbeke et al., 2010b).

Measuring risk perception

It has been said about risk perception that it ‘‘cannot be reduced to a single subjective correlate of a particular mathematical model of risk, such as the product of probabilities and consequences, because this imposes unduly restrictive assumptions about what is an essentially human and social phenomenon’’ (Royal Society, 1992). In addition to knowledge of risk probabilities and outcomes, people also take into account their beliefs, attitudes, and dispositions towards hazards as well as contextual, social and cultural variables in their perception of risks (Cardello, 2003). Thus, in much of the research on risk perception, measurements have been based on a psychometric approach anchored in cognitive psychology and other social sciences (Cardello, 2003; Fife-Schaw and Rowe, 1996; Fischhoff et al., 1978; Leikas et al., 2007; Sparks and Shepherd, 1994). Theoretical frameworks are the basis for development of models that describe the desired attitudinal and behavioural outputs (Bredahl, 2001; Bredahl et al., 1998; Cardello, 2003; Grunert, 2002). In most studies on risk perception, this is measured by asking respondents to score written statements that have theoretical bearings on risk-related topics. There are a number of semantic scales measuring attitudes that can predict risk perception (Bredahl, 2001; Bredahl et al., 1998). Some of these instruments measuring levels of consumers’ attitudes consonant with risk perception are presented in Table 1 (Allison, 1978; Bredahl, 2001; Frewer et al., 1997a; Frewer et al., 1996b; Pliner and Hobden, 1992; Roininen et al., 2001; Sparks et al., 1994; Urala and Lähteenmäki, 2007; van Dijk et al., 2008).

In many cases, it is easier to acquire understanding about consumers’ attitudes, perceptions and, thus, risk behaviours, when the measurements and instruments are context-specific. For instance, based on extensive research a methodology to investigate consumer risk perception towards different types of risks such as use of pesticides, mycotoxins in organic foods as well as genetically modified (GM) foods has been developed (van Dijk et al., 2008; van Kleef et al., 2006) (Table 1). Adaptations of the wording in product or context specific scales can provide more precise understanding of consumers’ risk perceptions of particular topics but must be undertaken with care (Bredahl, 2001).

Many of the instruments used for measuring risk perception also provide information on benefit perception in that if low levels of risk are perceived this may be taken as a benefit (Grunert, 2002).

Table 1. Attitude scales that can be used in measuring consumer risk perception.
Instrument Description Source
Alienation from the marketplace Indicates (dis)trust in the marketplace and that its actors are functioning to one’s advantage. High scores indicate high risk perception Allison (1978)
Attitude towards functional foods Consists of four dimensions measuring perception of risks and benefits of functional foods. High scores may indicate low risk perception in some contexts. Urala and Lähteenmäki (2007)
Attitude towards genetic engineering Four-factor scale assessing attitudes related to risk, benefit, personal control and knowledge. Frewer et al. (1996b)
Attitude towards genetic modification in food production Uses global measures for overall risk – benefit perception. Scale indicate risk on the one side and benefits on the other, i.e. bad-good. Bredahl (2001) Frewer et al. (1997a)
Attitude to nature Covers a belief that humans are part of and should live in harmony with nature. High scores can indicate high risk perception. Bredahl (2001); Frewer et al. (1997a)
Attitude towards science andtechnology Measures attitudes towards technology and is opposite to attitude to nature. Sparks et al. (1994)
Food neophobia Measures consumers’ attitudes to new or unfamiliar foods. High scores can indicate high risk perception. Pliner and Hobden (1992)
General health interest Measures an interest in eating healthily and is relevant in combination with health risk topics. Roininen et al. (2001)
Food risk management quality Measures how information about risks and management practices are perceived by consumer. Van Dijk et al. (2008)

Benefit perception

Consumers’ benefit perception of foods is more emotionally driven than is risk perception of foods (Fischer and Frewer, 2009). An emotion can be interpreted as a complex physiopsychological experience in a person’s mind in response to stimuli such as food (Averill, 1980). Thus, some of the most important benefits of foods derive from affective factors associated with intrinsic product attributes related to sensory properties and liking. Benefits are also related to extrinsic product attributes giving a food product added value through, for instance, convenience, healthiness aspects, value for money, or that it is produced in an ethically and environmentally friendly way (van Kleef et al., 2005). Often, a benefit is thought of when it is accompanied by a risk issue; as an attribute that can offset an undesirable consequence.

Product attributes perceived as benefits

When benefits of foods are associated with factors such as taste, context, or emotional aspects, this is often the result of own experience with the products (Cardello, 2003; Fischer and Frewer, 2009). In studies where consumers are asked which product attribute is the most important for food choice, the first answer will usually be good taste or, in some instances, taste attributes that are linked to product liking. Following this, the consumers may rank a number of other attributes, such as health, price or appropriateness for a specific context, in different order depending on the individual and the situation (Tepper and Trail, 1998).

Sometimes, different benefits may be in competition with each other in the same product category. For instance, a product with a health benefit, i.e. yoghurt with zero fat and reduced sugar content, may compete with a similar product that has a taste benefit, i.e. full fat yoghurt with added sugars (Johansen et al., 2010; Rapp et al., 2009). Studies on consumer choice of products with health benefits, such as lower energy content, show that consumers invariably choose the version with the taste benefit and not the health benefit (Tepper and Trail, 1998; Urala and Lähteenmäki, 2006; Verbeke, 2006). Consumers with special health interest may accord health benefits higher importance than taste benefits (Zandstra et al., 2001). However, what consumers actually do in a real buying situation, may not correspond with their intentions or perceptions of the product, as is described by Kalogeras et al. (Kalogeras et al., In press).

Real product experience has been found to increase consumer acceptance of products that consumers otherwise have negative perceptions about (Cardello, 2003). In a study on acceptance of cheese supposedly produced with GM ingredients, consumers’ acceptance increased after tasting (Lähteenmäki et al., 2002). Thus, benefits perceived through tasting and handling of a food product may, at least momentarily, change prejudiced perceptions of the product.

In general, the importance of benefits other than taste benefits for consumers’ food choice will depend to a large extent on the consumer or consumer group’s particular interest. Consumers according high importance and interest in foods are more likely to also pay attention to benefits other than taste benefits of the products.

The dual aspect of benefits

An interesting feature of benefit attributes is the way in which they can be turned into risks depending on the context. For example, a chocolate bar can have beneficial attributes in that it provides energy, if that is needed, or tastes good, if the consumer desires a treat. Opposite, consumption of a chocolate bar can be a risk for weight gain or caries. For consumers this duality of benefits can be quite desirable, as the consumers can defend their choices using different arguments depending on the occasion.

Often, however, the risk aspect of a perceived benefit is unknown to the consumer. Wansink (2004) described in his review how environmental cues unknown to the consumer could influence consumption practices with unintended effects such as higher than desirable caloric intake (Wansink, 2004). Consumers were easily misled to believe that they had control and knowledge of the amount of food consumed, whereas simple manipulations of environmental cues showed that this was not the case. For instance, in a consumption situation, more food was consumed in company with other people, when presentation of portion sizes were distorted, or when other distractions were evident. Even consumers who were aware of the possibility of being influenced by external cues to eat more than they should, did not have control of their actual behaviour (Wansink, 2004).

In order to accept products and product innovations, consumers have to perceive and be persuaded by benefits (Ronteltap et al., 2007). Benefits to producers and industry vs. benefits as perceived by consumers may not coincide; e.g. irradiation which is seen as a benefit by industry in that it may replace use of pesticides and food additives is not considered a benefit by consumers (Macfarlane, 2002). Similarly other practices that are perceived by consumers to increase profits of food producers and food industry such as use of biotechnology to improve healthiness of food products or to provide environmental benefits in food production, are regarded as risks rather than benefits (Bruhn, 2005, 2007).

Health and environmental benefits

Ronteltap et al. (2007) described two main categories of benefits that are important for acceptance of product innovations; namely, health benefits and environmental benefits. Most consumers know about health benefits through information provided by different sources. Normally, health benefits are connected to something that is going to happen or not going to happen in the future, although feelings of comfort and well-being during or right after a meal may also influence perception of benefits (Grunert, 2002). Products with health benefits are often related to functional foods that are defined as ‘‘Food similar in appearance to conventional food that is intended to be consumed as part of a normal diet, but has been modified to subserve physiological roles beyond the provision of simple nutrient requirements’’ (Bech-Larsen and Grunert, 2003). Consumers’ acceptance of such products varies between countries, often depending on products consumers are used to from the marketplace (Bech-Larsen and Grunert, 2003; Frewer et al., 2003a; Lähteenmäki et al., 2010). However, a product that is perceived to be enhanced, for instance by addition of vitamins, or substitution of fatty acids, may also be perceived to be meddled with, and the unnaturalness thus inferred can override consumers’ perception of health benefits (Lähteenmäki et al., 2010).

The environmental aspect in consumers’ benefit perception can best be seen in their preference for naturalness in products (Rozin et al., 2004; Siegrist, 2008), and the deep scepticism towards food production technologies (Bruhn, 2007). A product perceived to be natural is thought to be minimally processed, produced by traditional methods, and it also seems that naturalness is associated with desirable sensory attributes (Siegrist, 2008). Increasing environmental concern among consumers is also evident in demand for ethically and environmentally friendly produced foods (Poelman et al., 2008). Among consumer segments with different socio-economic profiles based on their expertise and experience, and particularly those segments that score high on natural interest, organically produced foods are more desirable and expected to taste better and be more healthy compared to conventionally produced products (Grunert, 2002; Poelman et al., 2008). Despite the importance that consumers attach to the perceived nutritional and health-related attributes of organic food products, the higher priced premiums and the limited availability in retail outlets of these products in comparison to their conventional analogues, are the main two reversals in consumer purchase intentions and, hence, the ‘‘organic consumer’’ segments are still relatively small world-wide (Kalogeras et al., 2008). Whether organically or conventionally produced products have different taste properties are difficult to ascertain, as often different varieties are used in production of fruits and vegetables. However, it may seem that there is greater variability in taste of organically produced products providing both better and worse tasting samples from the same crop.

Measuring benefits

Perceived benefits of products can be tested using a number of different methods (Lawless and Heymann, 1999; van Kleef et al., 2005). The most widely used method for measuring the taste benefit is a nine point labelled hedonic category scale introduced by Peryam and Pilgrim, 1957 and variations of this method (Lawless and Heymann, 1999; Peryam and Pilgrim, 1957). Other scales measuring liking or preference are labelled magnitude scales and visual analogue scales with labelled endpoints (Green et al., 1993; Schutz and Cardello, 2001). Using these types of scales with different anchoring labels depending on the benefit to be measured, enables comparisons between products, and it is possible to determine if consumers perceive benefits or a relative magnitude of perceived benefits based on the consumers’ evaluations.

Other ways of measuring effect of benefits are through the use of, for example, Health and Taste Attitude semantic scales (Roininen et al., 2001), different types of choice experiments, or methods which measure consumers’ willingness-to-pay (WTP) or willingness-to-accept (WTA) a price premium in order to purchase, for instance, a food product of higher quality (e.g., organic) rather than a conventional one (Kalogeras et al., In press). In some of the scales presented in Table 1, perception of benefits is also an outcome measure. Methods, such as experimental auctions (Alfnes et al., 2008), encode the probability to accept a certain level of the risk involved in the consumption of a specific food item, as the process of extracting and quantifying consumer judgements about uncertain quantities (Pennings and Kalogeras, 2006). These consumer judgments are probably more or less vague, fuzzy and variable and are identified through the use of elicitation techniques, mostly originating from psychology, in order to measure the outcome of cognitive processes that operate when consumers evaluate risk and uncertainty (Smidts, 1990).

Risks versus benefits

Although both benefits and risks of foods can be measured and studied separately, such as is the case with benefits related to taste or risks related to contamination, the concepts are frequently mentioned in the same breath as parts, or opposites, of the same phenomenon.

Research show that benefits may modify perception of risks, or vice versa (Grunert, 2002). Fischhoff et al. (1978) found that higher risk was accepted for a product with a benefit if the risk was voluntary, immediate, known precisely, controllable and familiar (Fischhoff et al., 1978). Furthermore, importance of risks and benefits to consumers are dependent on type of incident, who is affected, type of product and the context in which the situation occurs (Siegrist, 2008). For instance, caregivers may react more strongly towards risks or benefits that are perceived to concern those they have a responsibility towards, than otherwise might be the case. Studies on consumption of fresh produce in the US showed that women were particularly concerned about risks of pesticide residues in foods and, conversely, benefits of organic products when they had children in the household (Bruhn, 2005; Macfarlane, 2002). In this instance, children and young people created higher involvement among the decision makers; risks became more risky and benefits more beneficial (Bruhn, 2005; Macfarlane, 2002).

Locus of control is another important factor leading to overestimation of risks. Consumers are more liable to perceive higher risk in situations which they experience as being out of their control (Verbeke et al., 2007a). Often lack of own control can be substituted by control exercised of trusted others. Thus, another factor triggering benefit and risk perception is level of trust in the different stakeholders involved with the product or product incident. Benefits are more easily perceived when products come from trusted sources or with messages from trusted sources (Finucane and Holup, 2005; Frewer et al., 1999; Siegrist, 2008). Similarly, risk information has higher impact if the sources of information are considered untrustworthy. Even though there is evidence of consumer distrust in the food domain, an interesting finding shows that consumers are optimistic about food safety and that risk perception is not in itself sufficient to explain trust or distrust in foods (Kjærnes, 2008).

However, benefit and risk perception still seem to be inversely correlated in many cases, so that when something is perceived as being highly beneficial, it is correspondingly perceived as having low risk (Fischer and Frewer, 2009). It seems that if there is a greater benefit associated with a product, more risk can be accepted. Thus, a certain trade-off between benefits and risks is present (Bredahl et al., 1998). Some measurement methods can be used in a bi-modal way and can thus measure both risks and benefits by looking at scores. For instance, high scores on the Food Neophobia scale (Pliner and Hobden, 1992) may indicate high risk perception associated with new or unfamiliar foods, while low scores may be an indication that consumers are comfortable with these types of food and perceive some benefit from consuming them. Interpretation of results from such instruments must always take into account the context in which they are used. However, some instruments or methods only measure one outcome, either risk or benefit, as for instance, low hedonic score implies no taste benefit, but this has nothing to do with risk perception. An overview of measurement methods and whether they can be used for either risk or benefit perception or both, is provided in Table 2. Fischer and Frewer (2009) showed that consumers’ perception of benefits and risks use slightly different paths in their formation; benefit perception is based on heuristics, which are simple, general and often intuitive strategies used in decision processes (Kahneman et al., 1982), and concrete experience, while risk perception is to a larger extent the result of cognitive information processing (Kalogeras et al., In press). Familiarity has been found to be particularly important for benefit perception (Fischer and Frewer, 2009). Familiarity reduces the feelings of uncertainty and increases perceived control, which lay the basis for the consumer to be more appreciative of beneficial aspects of the food product.

The particular case of fish

For some types of foods consumers’ general perception is that consumption of the product is beneficial; it is both healthy and tastes good, and that there is little or no risk associated with consumption. Fish is one such product (Verbeke et al., 2005). The perception of fish as a healthy product has been strongly advocated by health authorities and organisations in their dissemination activities on dietary guidelines (USDA, 2011). This dissemination has been going on for decades, and the message has been accepted by consumers as sound advice coming from trusted sources, promoting benefits, and based on research (WHO, 2007).

However, disseminating information only about benefits for a food product may be risky, since new knowledge that introduce an aspect of risk may cause distrust and feelings of uncertainty among consumers (Verbeke et al., 2008). When new information on healthiness of fish was presented giving a differentiated picture of the healthiness by introducing potential health adverse factors such as impact of feeding regimes or pollution (Cohen et al., 2005; Foran et al., 2006), consumer opinions were severely affected (Verbeke et al., 2005; Verbeke et al., 2008). Consumers who were given information about risks of fish consumption, showed a large increase in risk perception (Verbeke et al., 2008). Although the large increase in risk perception did not affect intention to eat to the same degree, possibly because the new information did not align with existing beliefs about healthiness, research show that negative effects of disconfirmed expectations on consumer perceptions are considerable (Cardello and Sawyer, 1992). In the case of fish, level of risk perception that is higher than reasonable can be an outcome due to the unexpectedness of the new knowledge. Unexpected information about risk issues can also lead to suspicions about lack of transparency and that not all the truth is yet told (Verbeke et al., 2008).

A particular difficulty for consumers with regard to benefit-risk perception of fish consumption is that the benefits and risks are not equally distributed on all consumer segments. On the one hand, general advice for increasing consumption of fish is based on, among others, improving health and reducing risk for cardiovascular diseases, while on the other hand stricter recommendations and restrictions are placed on fish intake for pregnant women and children (FDA, 2004; USDA, 2011). The restrictions are based on findings that fish may be contaminated by heavy metals and other pollutants that can be detrimental for the development of the foetus and young children (Mahaffey, 2004). Research concludes, however, that increasing fish intake is beneficial and that the nutritional aspect of fish consumption outweighs the possible toxicological effects of contaminated fish (Sioen et al., 2009; Sioen et al., 2008). For consumers this is difficult to understand because different consumer groups are targeted for the benefits and risks, and because the benefits and risks vary with fish species (Mahaffey, 2004). The difficulties in benefit-risk perception arise because consumers must know which risk group they are in, what are their nutritional needs and weigh the benefits and risks accordingly. Consumers quite often make use of information in ways that are most beneficial for oneself. Thus, risk perception can be downplayed if the consumer wants the benefit, by, for instance, attributing the risk to other consumer segments, or consumers who don’t like fish may also use the risk argument to reduce their fish consumption.

Benefit and risk perception in relation to products and processes

Consumers’ perception of benefits or risks is heavily dependent on both types of products and of the production processes associated with the products, as well as on the consumers themselves. Some types of foods that have connotations on levels other than mere consumption are subject to higher involvement and, consequently, benefit-risk evaluations by consumers. Likewise, production processes high on the technology axis about which consumers are uncertain will promote higher interest and more risk–benefit evaluations.

The particular case of meat

Meat is the food product that has the highest involvement among consumers, and which is particularly sensitive to risk perception (Verbeke et al., 2007a). Meat consumption has large cultural and religious implications, it is a food placed on the top of the food hierarchy with strong traditional and historical meanings (Bourdieu, 1984), and animals can be both friend and food. As a result of this, meat evokes dualistic attitudes among consumers. On the one hand meat is the preferred and best liked food, while on the other hand, meat consumption of, particularly, red meat or processed meat products is reputed to increase risk of cardio-vascular disease, cancers and overweight (Daviglus et al., 2008; Murtaugh et al., 2007; Schönfeldt and Gibson, 2008), as well as being both ethically and environmentally questionable. Effects of food scares on consumer risk perception are more enduring when meat is involved than for other types of foods (Verbeke et al., 2007a). One reason for this can be media coverage showing sick animals, slaughter and destruction procedures which have larger impact on consumers’ attention than vegetables with mould.

Consumers are particularly concerned with the aspect of naturalness as a benefit with respect to meat (Barcellos et al., 2010; Gellynck et al., 2006; Lähteenmäki et al., 2010; Verbeke et al., 2010a). This means that meat should be minimally processed, since as much of the production as possible should be evident to the consumer, while most of the preparation should be done at home (Barcellos et al., 2010). In addition, benefits that are particularly relevant for meat are related to taste, social setting, feelings of well-being, and, in the case of lean meat, health. Risks perceived with meat are related to health and production issues.

Acceptance of innovative production techniques and Novel Foods

In a regulatory definition, Novel Foods are foods or food ingredients which have not so far been used for human consumption to a significant degree (Regulation (EC) No. 258/97 of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning novel foods and novel food ingredients) (Verhagen et al., 2009). Genetic modification of foods and feed are regulated through a separate decree (Regulation (EC) No. 1829/2003 of the European Parliament and of the Council on genetically modified food and feed.).

On the outset, technology is not important for consumers’ food choice, rather taste and convenience as well as the health benefits are drivers for choice (Bruhn, 2007). All these factors may be improved by food technology to make more desirable products for the consumer. However, use of technology may then be subject to separate evaluations by consumers which again may influence product acceptance. Studies indicate that provision of targeted information for specific consumer groups may improve acceptance of novel foods with specific benefits (Frewer et al., 2003a; Frewer et al., 1997b). Consumer acceptance of novel technologies are often perceived as positive in that there are obvious and well communicated benefits associated with the technology and the outcome or product resulting from the technology. This is particularly true for technologies and products from other domains than food (Ronteltap et al., 2007). In the food domain, however, novelty is often unappreciated by consumers (Cardello, 2003). A main factor that may contribute to the adverse behaviour of consumers concerning risk–benefit perception of novel foods and food production technologies can be attributed to the problem that these products are ingested and thus become part of oneself (Rozin et al., 2004). Uncertainty among consumers is also associated with novel food production technologies and this factor contributes to consumers’ scepticism to novel food products (Siegrist, 2008).

Nanotechnology is currently the most expanding novel technology in many domains, also in the food domain, while consumer knowledge of the technology and its uses is at best minimal (Siegrist et al., 2008). Consumers use heuristics to a large extent to evaluate risks and benefits as their factual knowledge is very limited. Thus, Siegrist et al. (2008) found that products that were evaluated as particularly risky were connected to children and consumption, while use of nanotechnology for packaging was more accepted.

Hagemann and Scholderer (2009) found that consumers considered genetically modified foods to be the prototype of novel foods, irrespectively of whether the food could be defined as novel or not, and not taking into account other products or processes that are novel by definition (Hagemann and Scholderer, 2009).

The particular case of genetically modified (GM) foods

Application of gene technology opens up many possibilities and avenues for research. Uses of gene technology can be found in medicine and pharmacy, for identification purposes, and in many other scientific disciplines bringing knowledge a great step forward. For many of these purposes, the public are optimistic, curious, or only indifferent. For use of gene technology in food production, however, totally different consumer attitudes are evoked.

The area of genetic engineering and food is the most extensively studied area with regard to consumer perception of risk (Bredahl, 2001; Bredahl et al., 1998; Finucane and Holup, 2005; Frewer, 1997; Frewer et al., 1995, 1999, 1996b, 2003b; Gaskell et al., 2004; Hagemann and Scholderer, 2009). To most consumers any mention of genes trigger associations to the most personal, intimate and inviolable aspects of life. Consequently, when genes are, from a consumer point of view, tampered with, this is met with extreme disquiet and distrust. In the discourse on genetic engineering, benefits that may arise from GM foods and ingredients have not reached the target population in a way that leads to acceptance in the public opinion (Frewer et al., 1995; Gaskell et al., 2004; Scholderer and Frewer, 2003). Gaskell et al. have postulated that it is the absence of benefits as perceived by consumers that is the major problem in the case of consumer perception of GM foods (Gaskell et al., 2004).

Perception of risks and benefits of GM foods is strongly linked to both risk dimensions of technology and severity (See Fig. 1) (Fischhoff et al., 1978). There is little experience-based knowledge in the European population concerning products or effects, as the use of GM ingredients in foods has been very strictly regulated (Gaskell et al., 2004). Thus, opinions are based to a large extent on extrapolations of own attitudes and values. Benefits listed for GM foods can be associated with sustainability issues or health effects such as improved fatty acid composition (Cox et al., 2008), but these benefits cannot be directly assessed by the public. Lack of tangible experience with GM foods means that consumers have to base perceptions on credence characteristics meaning that other considerations are taking the place of concrete product experience (Scholderer and Frewer, 2003). In general, it is a strong rejection of GM foods among consumers (Bredahl, 2001; Lähteenmäki et al., 2002; Scholderer and Frewer, 2003), this is particularly strong in Europe but it is also becoming more evident in North America (Finucane and Holup, 2005). There are some nuances among consumers in what and how GM foods are perceived, and characteristics of the group of consumers with less rejection of GM foods are associated with more positive attitudes towards technology and marketplace (Bredahl, 2001).

Although the overlying scepticism to GM foods is large, differentiation of risk perception of GM foods can be seen when more details about product or process is presented to the consumer (Frewer, 1997; Grunert, 2002; Lähteenmäki et al., 2002). In essence, the GM factor is more acceptable, or less risky, when the product is not perceived as natural, or if the product is perceived to be far from the consumer in a psychological sense (Costa-Font et al., 2008).

Price of a product has always been a major driver for choice, usually overriding most other attributes of the product. For GM products perceived risk has been found to reduce willingness to pay (Costa-Font et al., 2008). Similarly, willingness to pay for the benefit of obtaining foods that are non-GM has been found to be as much as 100% higher than the price of the GM product (Batte et al., 2007). Price is a moderator of the importance of perceived risk for choice and studies show that for some consumer segments the importance of risk as a driver for food choice may be reduced when there is a price benefit (Costa-Font et al., 2008; Dannenberg, 2009). The importance of price in benefit-risk analysis is discussed more in-depth by Kalogeras et al. this issue (Kalogeras et al., in press).

Conclusion and recommendation

Consumers are particularly conservative when it comes to perception and acceptance of foods. Benefit-risk evaluations tend to be skewed to towards acceptance of all that is traditional and wellknown (benefits), and rejection or suspicion towards anything that is novel or highly processed (risks) regardless of actual risk. However, benefit and risk perception are to some extent inversely correlated, so that when something is perceived as being highly beneficial, it is correspondingly perceived as having low risk. It seems that if there is a greater benefit associated with a product, more risk can be accepted, thus, a certain trade-off between benefits and risks are present.

The literature shows that perception of benefits and risks vary greatly between different products and between factors related to the products. Fish, for instance, scores high on perception of health benefits, while meat scores high on taste benefits. In most cases, research is conducted within product categories to increase understanding of benefit-risk perceptions of that particular food or production technology in order to improve products or communication. However, benefit-risk evaluations that are identified as important for the consumers may not impact on actual choice, or might be accorded different weights in different situations. More research is needed to understand the role of benefit-risk perception in perspectives such as a trade-off mechanism in different food choice contexts, or how changes in consumers’ life situation impact on benefit-risk perceptions. Knowledge of how consumers perceive benefits and risks of foods, may impact on understanding benefitrisk perception in other areas related to personal, societal or environmental perspectives. Furthermore, in the course of performing benefit-risk analysis an important aspect is communicating relevant information to consumers. For such communication to be effective it is necessary to understand how consumers interpret and use information, and how this impacts on benefit and risk perception.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that there are no conflicts of interest.


The preparation of this manuscript was funded through Safefoodera project BEPRARIBEAN (project ID 08192) by the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (VWA), the Research Council of Norway (RCN) and the Nordic Council of Ministers (NCM) and supported by Matís, The National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), the University of Ulster and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM).


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