the eve of Coeliac Awareness
Week, gluten-related stories are starting to appear in the media, and I
look forward to seeing what emerges in the coming days. Social media has
already been a hive of activity concerning an article in the Evening Standard
written by Wheat Out’s Miranda Bryant this week, but another piece which caught
my eye was this piece in the Guardian, written by the Voice of Young Science
Network’s Victoria Murphy.
she argues that ‘free from’ messages ‘misinform customers about health risks’
and that supermarkets are ‘playing on people’s fears’. She is particularly
interested in MSG and aspartame, which she states are both ‘safe’. Quite
bafflingly, she argues that supermarkets need ‘to promote evidence’. I’m not
entirely sure why supermarkets have borne the brunt of this attack, given food
manufacturers in general make these kinds of statements on their foods, but
say upfront I have faith in scientific method, and that I’m in wholehearted
support of the rationalists and scientists concerning those notorious subjects
which typically exercise them – homeopathy and vaccines, for instance.
when scientists see only science, science and nothing but science, perspective
can be lost. The whole article is founded on a basis that ‘free from’ messages
are exclusively about science and ‘safety’ – and they are not.
are many reasons people need or choose to avoid ingredients or products. Here
are some: food allergies (eg nuts), food intolerance (lactose), coeliac disease
(gluten), ethical reasons (meat or animal produce, or meat reared / slaughtered
in particular ways), religious sensibilities (certain animal products again,
alcohol, methods of food preparation … ), environmental concerns (food transported
by air, grown under certain conditions, sustainability …), palatability (many
don’t like artificial or supplementary flavouring – aspartame tastes grim to many
…) and so on.
From or similar messaging can help all these consumers.
parabens, a class of preservatives used in cosmetic substances, I agree that
lack of safety has not been proven, but concerns remain, enough for the European
Commission’s Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety to decide last year
to look again at the evidence in detail. Whatever the outcome, some people are
allergic to parabens – they are on the testing panels used by dermatologists to
identify contact allergens – and ‘parabens free’ labelling is of great
reassurance to them.
presupposes that consumers are only interested in products which are not going
to harm them and that labelling messages are only about medical
concerns, and is based on a blinkered science-only starting point – a dogma which fails to take into account what people actually feel, or
what their personal sensibilities are, or their views of the world, or their individual
tastes, which don’t fit into the right-wrong, yes-no framework scientists
sometimes struggle to see past.
the author of the piece fails to credit consumers with much savvy, either.
Common sense ought to tell us that ‘free from’ messaging does not always imply
medical undesirability or lack of safety – does ‘calorie free’ messaging
promote the idea that calories are out to get you?
fair enough, some may see ‘free from artificial sweeteners’ or (of course) ‘gluten
free’ and think those things are universally bad – I’ve no doubt that this
happens and yes it is the duty of food manufacturers to not mislead. But it is
this fact, in that case, which needs to be communicated to consumers. Why
advocate the removal of messages simply because some may misinterpret them?
in their open letter to the main supermarkets, the VofYS accuse their use of
what they call ‘negative marketing’ as ‘short sighted’.
sweeping undermining of ‘free from’ messaging – which many have come to rely on
for any number of reasons – is what is in my view short-sighted, and this
righteous attack which fails to consider the full picture is hardly the way
Labels: aspartame, free from food, labelling, MSG, parabens, skincare