We have all found ourselves standing in a supermarket aisle, staring at packets and cans, struggling to choose between different versions of the same thing: Do I choose the product that is “free from artificial sweetener” or has “no MSG”? What about the one that “contains no GM” or is “paraben-free”?
But these are false choices: supermarkets are misinforming their customers about health risks. There is no scientific evidence to support rumours about adverse health effects from the flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG), or from foods containing material from plants that were genetically modified, or from the sweetener aspartame, or from parabens, which are used to preserve toiletries.
Frustrated by this cynical marketing, a group of junior researchers that I coordinate (the Voice of Young Science network) wrote an open letter calling on supermarkets to stop misleading customers and review their negative claim policies.
We had asked the supermarkets to give their reasons for marketing products as “free from”. Without exception, the supermarkets that responded provided no evidence for any negative health effects. Instead, they told us their policies are a response to customer concerns. For example Marks & Spencer responded: “The reason why we decided as a business to remove GM ingredients from our foods was due to our customer concerns.”
Perhaps supermarkets don’t realise the scale of the effect they have on customer opinion. When it comes to public misunderstanding of GM, for example, supermarkets have contributed to widespread public distrust. GM-free supermarket products imply that GM is “weird science”, even though the European Commission has found no evidence of higher risk of negative health outcomes from GM food compared with conventional food in any of the research it has funded.
This campaign is in conjunction with Sense about Science, a U.K. organization. Here is their news release.
Is this the right approach? Supermarkets don’t design the labeling. Manufacturers are responding to an increased concern about certain chemicals. Yes, those concerns are not backed by science but people feel they want this choice and are willing to pay more for “[whatever]-free” this or that. I’m not sure this is going to work. The manufacturers are all about marketing and presentation. This costs them nothing and may increase sales for people who feel they are “playing it safe”.
On a similar note, imagine my surprise when I found my Costco shampoo AND conditioner were “gluten free”. WHO EATS HAIR PRODUCTS?
I don’t think the gluten is what will do me in.
It turns out there is little validity to a skin allergy from wheat products. Wheat allergies in general are rare. Even people with celiac disease need to digest the allergen to have an effect. The marketing is serving to scare people about things they really should not be scared of.
Skeptoid: Gluten Free Diets.