The food industry fosters inaccurate consumer perceptions by reinforcing negative messages about some ingredients and chemicals, a leading scientific organisation has claimed.

Tracey Brown, director of Sense about Science - an independent charitable trust - pointed the finger at companies such as the Co-operative Group, Ben & Jerry's and Pret a Manger, criticising them for banning harmless chemicals.

At a Cosmetic Toiletry & Perfumery Association forum, Brown said the Co-operative Group's decision to ban commonly used colours and monosodium glutamate in own label food, and Pret a Manger's and Ben & Jerry's policies of shunning chemicals, were based on inaccurate science.

"Peas and parmesan have glutamate," Brown said. "These companies do it in the name of consumer choice. All they are doing is reinforcing bad messages."

Newspapers were quick to print headlines claiming fluoride in water was dangerous, that mobile phones could cause cancer and cleaning products led to toxic babies. But the misconceptions they were creating were not entirely of their making, said Brown.

"The Daily Mail may have taken up the idea of Frankenfoods when describing GM but it was the chairman of Iceland [Malcolm Walker] who originally popularised the idea."

Delegates agreed perceptions of risk and hazard had reached an all-time high and industry was consequently suffering from poor consumer trust. "The biggest issue in business and society is who do we trust," said CTPA chairman John Ballington. "Mistrust means it is too easy for the government and the media to accuse companies of cover-ups. Consumers hear about things faster than ever and often before the facts come out."

Companies should speak to consumers in their own language to rebuild trust and stop the nanny state disempowering consumers, said Charles Laroche of Unilever. The best way to build confidence was through brands, he added.