“Consumers are desperate for information because they want to make informed decisions, and if we don’t step up and provide that information in a state of the science way, [then] other groups seem to fill that space very quickly – often providing information that is not accurate,” said Norbert Kaminski, director of the Institute for Integrative Toxicology at Michigan State University.
For example, he explained at the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Science Forum in Washington, DC, late last month, “there is a very long list of ingredients that are under attack by various advocacy groups that have been studied and found to be safe for many years,” but which manufacturers under pressure from consumers now are replacing with ingredients that appear to be more natural.
Unfortunately, Kaminski added, “natural does not equate to safe,” and even when they are safe often less is known about these newer, ‘natural’ alternatives or they are not as effective, which ultimately “opens the industry to potential criticism,” as well as food safety and stability issues.
For example, benzoate sorbate is an “extremely effective” preservative that controls yeast and mold for many commodities that has come under attack and is being removed from products to the detriment of shelf life, said Fracsico Diez-Gonzales, director of the Center for Food Safety and the University of Georgia.
“The challenge that this represents is accomplishing the same level of shelf life with the alternative new antimicrobials that are from natural origins that are coming through the pipeline and which, in many ways are offering very promising results, but still are not proven as widely effective,” he said.
Another example, is the removal of nitrites from meat-based products in favor of celery-based ingredients, he said. “The celery ingredients perform the same principle, but at least the protection against botulinum still continues to be a major concern if you want to replace nitrites,” he said.
Diez added that he fears that the meat industry also will face increased incidence of listeria as pressure mounts to discontinue the use of antimicrobials diacetate and lactate dehydrogenase.
Other examples where Diez says “sound science … has failed miserably” in the natural debate is raw milk and irradiation to control pathogens.
Parallels to the GMO debate
The demonization of effective preservatives and “chemical-sounding” ingredients for food safety and shelf stability closely tracks the demonization of genetically modified organisms, adds Kaminski.
“We talked quite a bit about the fact that GMOS provide an incredible benefit to society and everything from how we raise crops to the use in developing countries where we are able to engineer things like vitamins and other nutrients into the plants to help feed people. And yet, for some reason, I think that this debate has really [been] lost … on the general public,” he explained.
“GMOs had been demonized because I think very early on there wasn’t an effort to” explain how GMOs were made and the benefits they offered not just corporations and producers, but end users as well, he added.
“So, advocacy groups really stepped in and, you know, unnecessarily, I believe, created a lot of fear around genetically modified organisms,” he said.
Sound science could help consumers see the other side
Kaminski said he worries the clean label movement and push for “familiar sounding ingredients that consumers can pronounce” is repeating this cycle of misplaced fear and that safe, functional ingredients that are necessary for shelf stability and food safety could be sacrificed.
He encourages companies and food scientists to address this risk head on by better communicating the value and safety of hard to pronounce ingredients to consumers.
“I do think that as scientists especially, we have to do a much better job of communicating science to the public … and we have to do it both in terms of the context we present it in, as well as presenting it in a way that we can really understand,” he said.
Manufacturers also can help by explaining on packaging and communication with consumers why certain ingredients that may not be in everyone’s kitchen pantry are in packaged foods, he said.
“It is to make them actually safe and make them effective products, and I think sometimes that message is lost,” he added.