Penn State University researchers say they may have found a link between math comprehension and people's ability to understand messages about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

People who feel intimidated by math may be less able to understand messages about GMOs and other health-related information, according to a news release.

"Math anxiety, which happens when people are worried or are concerned about using math or statistics, leads to less effort and decreases the ability to do math," Roxanne Parrott, a professor of communication arts and sciences and health policy and administration, said in the release."Math anxiety also has been found to impair working memory."

That anxiety led to a decrease in comprehension when people read statistics about GMOs.

But those who had increased skills in math and a confidence in those skills had better comprehension.

They base their theory on a study conducted with 323 university students.

Participants were randomly assigned a message that was altered to contain one of three different ways of presenting statistics: a text with percentages, a bar graph, and both text and graphs.

The statistics were related to three different messages on GMOs, including results of an animal study, a Brazil nut study and a food recall announcement.

Researchers measured participants' math skills, confidence and anxiety before and after reading the message. Afterward, they also measured comprehension and how important participants perceived the message to be.

When exposed to a message about GMOs, even people with high levels of math skills and math-solving skills exhibited increased anxiety.

"Perhaps this is due to performance anxiety," Parrott said in the release. "It's a sense of 'I know I can do it and I have the skills to do it, but it is making me anxious to apply my skills.'"

Participants also said they believed that statistics presented in messages were more important than those presented in bar graphs. So text messages may be more persuasive than graphics.

The researchers reported their findings in the online issue of Journal of Health Communication.