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Risk, rationality and that schizophrenic beast called the food industry

By Elaine Watson , 27-Jun-2011
Last updated on 21-Jan-2012 at 01:00 GMT

While food scientists know we’re all made of ‘chemicals’ and that ‘natural’, ‘local’, ‘organic’ or ‘minimally processed’ food is not inherently safer, healthier or more sustainable than ‘mass-produced’ food, this is not what their colleagues in marketing are telling us...

While food scientists know we’re all made of ‘chemicals’ and that ‘natural’, ‘local’, ‘organic’ or ‘minimally processed’ food is not inherently safer, healthier or more sustainable than ‘mass-produced’ food, this is not what their colleagues in marketing are telling us...

If the food industry wants journalists and consumers to get real about risk, then it has to get real too.

I say this after returning from the IFT annual meeting and expo in New Orleans.

Few events targeted at food scientists would be complete without at least one hand-wringing session railing at the scientific illiteracy and ‘chemophobia’ of the public and the media when it comes to food. Cue hysterical press cuttings about aspartame, artificial colors and ‘Franken’ foods.

And the IFT show was no exception. Is it any wonder consumers have an irrational suspicion of food science - delegates were repeatedly told - when the media is populated by arts graduates unable to grasp ‘scientific’ material and hell bent on turning the most innocuous story into a full-blown food scare?

What they rarely acknowledge, of course, is that journalists are only part of the problem. The elephant in the room is one large, schizophrenic beast called the food industry, which, let’s be honest, is sending out some pretty mixed messages.

Mixed messages

While food scientists know we’re all made of ‘chemicals’ and that ‘natural’, ‘local’, ‘organic’ or ‘minimally processed’ food is not inherently safer, healthier or more sustainable than ‘mass-produced’ food, this is not what their colleagues in marketing are telling us.

If there is a bandwagon, they will jump on it, regardless of the science.

Indeed, if consumers suspect ‘artificial’ colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives might be poisoning their kids, this is in no small part because food manufacturers are falling over each other to banish them, regardless of whether they actually believe they are doing any harm.

Slapping ‘no artificial sweeteners’, ‘GM-free’, or ‘no HFCS’ on pack is not consequence-free. The message is clear, that the much-maligned (and legal and exhaustively-tested) substances must be bad for you, or why remove them?

And what about bisphenol A (BPA)? Half of the food industry is reassuring us that minute levels in can coatings represent a correspondingly minute, and acceptable level of risk, while the other half is scrambling to get rid of it faster than you can say 'BPA-free'.

Is it any wonder consumers are confused?

An honest debate?

Delegates at IFT also heard from keynote speaker Michael Specter and successive food scientists about the importance of ‘educating’ us about the realities of food science and production.

I couldn't agree more. So why are marketers at some of the nation's biggest packaged food companies stubbornly intent on peddling the myth that their mass-produced wares have magically made their way from field to fork with almost no human or mechanical intervention?

And where do the food technologists, operations directors and technical managers – the people actually responsible for ensuring our food is safe, affordable and available – fit into to this mythical 'old MacDonald' story? They don't, because we all know that laboratories, factories and machines have nothing to do with (safe, all-natural) food production, right?

Scientists are not always right

Now I am not an apologist for the GM lobby, aspartame or synthetic colors. If you want to avoid GMOs, TBHQ, BPA or Allura Red, that’s fine with me.

I also believe it is patronising and dangerous to assume that anyone in a white coat with letters after his/her name is always right and that consumer anxieties about novel technologies or substances should automatically be dismissed.

Look no further than Thalidomide and DDT, which scientists said were perfectly safe (although in the case of DDT, the environmental risk from heavy spraying on crops must be weighed against the benefits of DDT spraying for malaria control).

But do I agree with Michael Specter that it’s high time we started engaging in a rational, grown-up debate about risk and reward when it comes to ‘industrialized’ food production? You bet.

Processed foods are not the enemy

As Fergus Clydesdale pointed out at one education session at the IFT show, factories can (and do) churn out processed artery-furring, sugar-, fat- and sodium-laden rubbish, but they can also mass-produce processed healthy, portion-controlled food. Mass production per se is not the enemy.

And while natural, raw and organic foods can be good for you, they can also kill you (yes, those beansprouts were organic) just as ‘processed’ foods can. Pathogens aren’t fussy.

Convenient side show

Indeed, I would argue that the preoccupation with all things ‘natural’ has diverted attention from more substantive nutritional issues, and should be regarded as a convenient side show in the battle against obesity and type-two diabetes that the food industry should be trying to win.

After all, removing artificial flavors from a chocolate bar does not significantly enhance its nutritional profile, but the perception is nevertheless that the more ‘natural’ snack in question is ever so slightly better for you.

Meanwhile, if you have a weight problem, the benefits of drinking a zero calorie can of your favorite soft drink probably outweigh the ‘risks’ associated with the ‘artificial’ sweeteners lurking within.

Risks, rewards and food

Now arguably, none of this matters a great deal (unless you are selling sweeteners).

But as Specter pointed out, it does matter if consumers are avoiding vaccines because they are not being given the facts. Or if African leaders would rather let their people starve than eat GM food because they believe it will poison them.

Nothing is risk-free, something that all of us understand every time we get into our cars, catch a plane or switch on our mobile phones. Food is no different.

Elaine Watson is a correspondent on FoodNavigator-USA.com and NutraIngredients-USA.com. An award-winning journalist, Elaine has been writing about the food industry for more than 10 years for a range of print and online trade publications including The Grocer, Food Manufacture and Food Ingredients, Health & Nutrition.

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