Pushing back against food ingredient regulatory efforts

by Keith Nunes
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One of the more disturbing trends to affect the food and beverage industry during the past few years has been the efforts by cities and states to ban, tax or mandate the reduction in use of specific food and beverage ingredients. The targeted list includes sugar-sweetened beverages, sodium and most recently a legislator in the New York State Assembly proposed banning use of high-fructose corn syrup in the state. These efforts are not only misguided but they also represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the market forces that drive innovation while allowing consumers to make purchasing decisions that address their current life stages or health concerns.

It would be inaccurate to say these efforts to demonize specific food and beverage ingredients are new. The diet industry has preyed on segments of the industry for years, whether it is meat, grain-based foods, eggs or refined sugar. Yet, extending these efforts to the legislative arena represents an escalation that should give all food and beverage manufacturers pause.

Several reasons explain why the industry is seeing so much attention being paid to the role ingredients are accused of playing in the incidence of adverse health conditions. First, it reflects knee-jerk reactions to the rising costs of health care and the daunting challenge of educating consumers about the important roles of diet and exercise in health maintenance. As has been noted on this page before, addressing the impact of diet on overall health as well as specific adverse conditions such as obesity requires a broad-based and consistent education campaign.

Second, narrowing the focus to specific ingredients, such as H.F.C.S. or sugar, serves to limit resistance. It is much easier to sway public opinion about the component of a product that is sold by a handful of companies than it is to address such complex problems.

Finally, these efforts are the epitome of populist politics. For a politician, nothing may be safer than making an effort that is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to protect the health and wellness of his or her constituents. It promises political benefits with little risk.

The situation currently faced by the makers of H.F.C.S. provides a more than adequate illustration of how research may be misrepresented and used to cast doubt on the safety of an ingredient. More importantly, it illustrates how the removal of context from the debate leaves regulators and consumers uninformed. After all, the expansion in the use of H.F.C.S. was, in part, prompted by concern regarding the amount of sugar being used in many food and beverage products several years ago.

Such tunnel vision in the name of public health also ignores the abundance of choices consumers are presented today. Walking the aisles of any supermarket illustrates the tremendous breadth of selection currently before consumers. Concerns about H.F.C.S., fat, sodium, sugar, gluten or just about any other ingredient may, in most cases, be addressed by choosing another product.

The hallmark of successful companies is the ability to manufacture products efficiently and adapt to changing market conditions and trends with the introduction of innovative products that meet the changing needs of customers. Successful food and beverage manufacturers have more than adequately met these requirements by creating product portfolios that feature a variety of products that supply the needs of consumers, whether related to price, convenience, flavor or health concerns, plus many more.

Placing restrictions by law on the use of specific food and beverage ingredients, outside of those established by the Food and Drug Administration, represents a fundamental shift in public health policy. It also represents a misinformed effort because individual ingredients are for the most part not the cause of the conditions these efforts are meant to address.

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