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Ingredients of concern: marketing fear?

19th November 2014

A trend to naturalness and a certain amount of mistrust in the food industry has supported a burgeoning industry in designating some food components as “ingredients of concern.”  In the US, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) introduced its Food Scores database, which rates food and beverage products on a number of criteria, including nutrition and what the EWG calls “questionable additives,” including nitrites, potassium bromate, “synthetic food dyes,” and even the possibility that the milk or meat used in a product formulation may be sourced from animals that may have received antibiotics or hormones used to speed growth. The basis of the designation is unclear.

Bloggers such as Vani Hari, also known as the Food Babe – have achieved significant fame and income, while successfully persuading food companies to remove ingredients that are “questionable”. With no scientific training, Hari has commented that you probably shouldn’t eat anything you can’t pronounce. While some of the changes food companies have made in response to Food Babe’s challenges have been for the better, some of Hari’s claims, while colourful are occasionally also misinformed and inaccurate.

As an example, in one of her web videos, Hari bites off a corner of her yoga mat. “Umm,” she says. “Wake up people. Take a look at the ingredients in Subway’s nine-grain bread. Did you know that one of them is the same ingredients found in yoga mats?” The chemical azodicarbonamide is used to bleach and fluff some of Subway’s bread and create air bubbles that make yoga mats pliable and foamy. The research she cites focuses on the gas form of the chemical and workers who breathe it, not food. A Yale researcher, Steve Novella claims Subway uses too little of the ingredient to be dangerous.

Rick Berman, whose Center for Consumer Freedom has long countered activists’ claims on the behalf of food companies, says the industry is taking the easy way out by quickly making concessions instead of getting on the front foot and “setting the record straight.”

The FoodBabe example and others highlights that the balance of power and trust is shifting to savvy, web-enabled bloggers who have become the source of knowledge on what’s in our food. The problem is, the more outrageous and audacious the claims, the more attention and in many cases revenue these bloggers attract, and the more fear and mistrust about food is spread. It is a self-reinforcing cycle, and one that the food industry cannot afford to ignore.

The food industry must look at unnecessary and potentially harmful ingredients in food and see whether or not they are worth the risk – even if it is “just” reputational. Food companies must seek to clearly label ingredients in plain language and be prepared to explain the benefits they provide to consumers. This is ultimately about credibility and trust – and the food industry must work much better at maintaining it.