Why 'ingredients of concern' are so concerning

by Keith Nunes
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KANSAS CITY — A cottage industry has grown up around designating some ingredient technologies as “ingredients of concern.” There appears to be little reason behind such designations, which is one reason the issue is so troubling.

Earlier this week the Environmental Working Group introduced its Food Scores database, which rates food and beverage products on a number of criteria, including nutrition and what the E.W.G. calls “questionable additives.” Such ingredients earning the designation include nitrites, potassium bromate, “synthetic food dyes,” and even the possibility that the milk or meat used in a product formulation may be sourced from animals that may have received antibiotics or hormones used to speed growth. A call to the E.W.G. seeking information on what qualifies an ingredient as a “questionable additive” went unanswered.

Yet the E.W.G. is only the most recent group focusing on this subject. The foundation of Kroger’s successful Simple Truth product line is based on a list of 101 ingredients the retailer says its customers have told it they don’t want in their food. Then there is Whole Foods, which has its list of ingredients it deems unacceptable to be included in the food and beverage products it sells.

These efforts have done much to promote the efforts of bloggers such as Vani Hari, also known as the Food Babe. It is one thing to question the safety of an ingredient as Ms. Hari does with regularity, but when she may point to companies that have listed such ingredients as concerning, it lends her efforts a degree of credibility, whether it is deserved or not.

It is distressing that the marketing of food and beverage products has in some ways devolved to a level similar to many political campaigns — where the goal is not to promote ones strengths and qualifications, but scare people away from one’s opponent. As the food and beverage category becomes more competitive it is worrisome that such efforts are going to intensify.

Companies must always be mindful of research that may identify problems with the use of an ingredient or a technology, but such efforts must be based on actual research that is subject to peer review. It is foolish to believe such issues may never occur.

What must be challenged is the randomness of efforts to demonize specific ingredients or technologies, because its name may have too many syllables. In such cases everyone loses, even the companies using such efforts for a competitive advantage, because it will limit future progress that may be beneficial to consumers and the industry.

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