Your recent avoidance of Subway sandwiches due to the fear of consuming yoga mat material was probably influenced by information from the Internet and Facebook. Or the fear that gluten could contribute to autism. At least that’s what a new study — which looked at the extent that social media spreads food fears — finds.

Facebook status updates and online news articles are often filled with dramatic headlines that claim certain ingredients are bad for your health. But the new study, completed at Cornell University, urges consumers to gather background information about products and not rely solely on what’s spread through social media.

Ingredient Based Food Fears 2014 Cartoon
People who gather information about food hypes from the Internet are more likely to spread it, even if there's little to no evidence to support it. Cornell University

“We’ve been looking at a lot of these food misconceptions,” food psychologist Brian Wansink, lead author of the study and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, told “It’s kind of crazy. How do these things get started and get traction without really any evidence at all?”

Whether they’re rumors or facts, information is spread through Facebook and other outlets quickly. And while the Internet can be a source of knowledge, it can also produce a lot of misleading information. The researchers wanted to see how much social media outlets contributed to the spreading of fears about ingredients or additives like sodium benzoate and MSG, as well as trending scares like the pink slime of chicken nuggets. They found that moms who avoided high-fructose corn syrup received information about its potential risks from the Internet in particular rather than mainstream media or health care professionals. Studies have shown that high-fructose corn syrup is not a cause of obesity that's any different from other benign energy sources like honey, sucrose, and fruit juice concentrates.

The study authors warn that certain ingredients like Stevia — a sweetener substitute — may receive plenty of negative attention on the Internet when in reality they’re quite safe. They found that participants who received background information about Stevia gave the sweetener a higher rating, while others who did not receive any info about it generally gave it a lower rating.

“Learn the science, history and the process of how the ingredient is made,” Brian Wansink said in a news release. “You’ll be a smarter, savvier consumer if you do.” He also suggests to “familiarize” yourself with the product: “once people feel familiar with the ingredient, they’ll find no reason to fear it!” he says.

Source: Wansink B. “Ingredient-based food fears and avoidance: Antecedents and antidotes.” Food Quality and Preference, 2014.