The obsession with ridding food labels of additives in the wake of the University of Southampton study on artificial colours risks diverting time and resource from addressing more serious nutritional challenges, the British Nutrition Foundation has argued.
While there was nothing wrong with using more 'natural' colours, flavours or preservatives, too great a focus on avoiding 'nasties' could "detract from the major challenges in child nutrition: avoiding obesity, achieving adequate intakes of essential nutrients and avoiding excessive intakes of fat, salt and sugars", claimed director general Judy Buttriss.
Her comments came as research from Mintel revealed that 'all natural' or 'no artificial ...' claims were the most significant drivers of new product development in 2008, featuring on almost a quarter (23%) of food and drink launches. Buttriss said: "When it comes to prioritising the attributes of foods, their content of essential nutrients and whether they are high in nutrients we need to cut down on are far more relevant considerations than 'clean' labels."
Blacklisting sweeteners was not in consumers' best interests as obesity figures continued to rise, she added: "It's not helpful if they are avoided out of hand."
Retailers routinely list commitments to cut additives in the 'healthy eating' sections of their websites. However, there was no compelling evidence to suggest that cleaner meant healthier, and consumers were in many cases being duped by 'no nasties' pledges, claimed Interfood technical sales director Steve Overton.
Take phosphate which increases the succulence and yield of cooked meats. You can get great results using tiny amounts of tri-, di- and poly-phosphate. But that's three E-numbers. "Remove two of them and you've got to use more of the remaining one to achieve the same effect, so there is actually more phosphate in the end product. Is the consumer better off after all this? Is it safer or healthier?
No. But the label looks 'cleaner'. "Such is the distrust of 'mass-produced' food and 'chemicals' that some schools and nurseries are now asking caterers to steer clear of a vast number of legally approved ingredients, added Brakes' head of health and nutrition Eileen Steinbock.
"We've been asked to remove E-numbers, nitrites and nitrates, artificial sweeteners, colours, flavours and preservatives, monosodium glutamate and even caramel colouring. The official guidance is that these things are OK, but the consumer perception is that they are not."
See feature on p39.