In an open letter to 10 supermarket chief executives, early career researchers from the Voice of Young Science (VoYS) have called on supermarkets to stop misleading customers about health risks. The letter was sent to Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury, Tesco and Waitrose.
They accuse the supermarkets of playing on unfounded fears about the health effects of consuming genetically modified (GM) foods, monosodium glutamate (MSG), parabens – a class of bactericidal and fungicidal chemicals widely used as preservatives by the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries – and the high-intensity sweetener aspartame.
VoYS is a network of early career researchers who play an active role in public debates about science. It developed in 2005 around the work of Sense About Science Sense, the charity set up to equip people to make sense of science based on evidence.
Not supported by scientific evidence
The rumoured health effects are not supported by scientific evidence, VoYS says, and excluding these substances does not provide a health benefit.
The researchers had earlier asked UK supermarkets to give reasons for advertising products as being ‘free-from’ these substances. Without exception,the supermarkets that responded did not provide evidence of health effects, they claimed. Instead, they blamed customer concerns.
The researchers said the supermarkets know there is no evidence and the negative claims are cynical marketing.
Supermarkets that market their products as MSG-free, GM-free, paraben-free and free-from artificial sweetener are misleading customers who are concerned about making healthy choices. The supermarkets are also undermining public efforts by the scientific community to communicate the risks and benefits of food choices.
VoYS member Simon Rees said:“Lidl makes its products with ‘no added MSG’ because that’s what it thinks customers want. No science. No evidence. Simple marketing.”
His comments were echoed by other VoYS members.
Lucy Brooks said: “It seems Iceland’s decision not to sell GM products is based on customer demand. If science and logic are to prevail then change needs to start somewhere: first by supermarkets using evidence as the basis of their policies.”
Asda: ‘Led by our customers’
Duncan Casey added:“I contacted Asda to ask about the basis for its policy, which is, ‘led by our customers’, according to its policy statement. However, the company was unwilling, or unable, to provide any further information beyond the vague statements on the website. I can only conclude that its stance is led more by scare stories in the press than by any real evidence.”
VoYS co-ordinator Victoria Murphy said:“Hundreds of researchers in the VoYS network are involved in tackling public misinformation about science and health. They make incredible efforts alongside their research work, but they have been frustrated about product and marketing claims.
“While the media and others have become a good deal more balanced in their presentation of research into MSG, GM, parabens and sweeteners, supermarkets are misleading thousands of people every day. People who want better communication of food risks and benefits are forced to struggle uphill against this tide.”
In support of these views, chairman of the UK Register of Toxicologists Professor Rob Chilcott added: “There are many examples of the public being misled by baseless opinion masquerading as scientific fact … therefore, it is refreshing to see a new generation of scientists who are prepared to openly challenge misconceptions that may be adversely influencing public debate on important issues such as the safety of GM crops and food additives.”