Supermarkets must stop scaremongering, say scientists

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Supermarkets have jumped on the GM 'Frankenfood' bandwagon
Supermarkets have jumped on the GM 'Frankenfood' bandwagon

Related tags: Scientific method

Supermarkets are pandering to misplaced consumer fears about the health risks of of widely used food ingredients in a cynical marketing move, a group representing young scientists has warned.

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.”

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4 comments

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Undermining consumers' confidence in our food is not without consequences

Posted by A Fallon,

MSG can help to reduce salt levels significantly while maintaining tastiness (umami) and aspartame provides the sweet taste that people enjoy without the calories of sugar helping with healthy weight maintenance.

Modern biotechnology (aka GM) has a role to play in a sustainable food supply, and in providing ingredients that are nutritionally enhanced and/or benefit the environment.

To suggest that our food is better without these is a disservice to the consumer and has the potential to limit food choice and innovation. The food industry is keen to prove that it can substantiate claims about ingredients with benefits - so why not substantiate negative claims?

This initiative by Sense About Science is to be commended in calling for evidence. In fact, there is little evidence that negative claims can be justified by consumer demand. Quantitative research, including by the Food Standards Agency, demonstrates that there is little if any concern about food additives or ingredients unless it is prompted. That is what negative claims are designed to do.

As an industry, we should surely stand up for the range of safe, effective ingredients, including approved additives, available to us. Young scientists, a group we are keen to attract to careers in food so as to drive future development, are right to remind us of this.

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Who the hell do they think they are !!!

Posted by Tim,

Sorry to sound offended, but I am. It feels to me as if a few kids with an interest in self promotion and little knowlegde of much else want to tell us things are fine, when it's clear they are NOT. GM - Google it , its not good.
MSG!!! Aspartame !!! . Get back to your studies Kids … and look outside your small, closed box; you'll be stunned.
VoYS - shut-up

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I agree with Richard Sheane

Posted by Holly Tully,

Naive, and a bit arrogant – just because they're scientists doesn't mean they're smarter than the retailers on how to run their business. Do they really think a business can ignore what its customers want? I'd love to see them try to navigate the rough waters of customer demand.

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