KANSAS CITY — Company executives may feel a scientific study gives a misleading view of their food product. Researchers may feel the study contains information about an ingredient that needs a further explanation or even a correction. A response may seem necessary, but consider the investment.
“It takes about 20 papers to correct a negative,” said Roger Clemens, Ph.D., an advisory council member for FMC Corp., Philadelphia. “A tremendous amount of work and money and time goes into correcting something that’s negative in the social media or even in a scientific publication.”
Industry efforts have defended such ingredients as high-fructose corn syrup, caramel color and aspartame. Now, FMC Corp., which made $3.28 billion in sales in fiscal year 2015, is sticking up for carrageenan, seeking ways to convince consumers and food companies that the red seaweed is safe when used as a food ingredient. Published work already has appeared in a scientific journal and a consumer web site.
“In the case of carrageenan, there is a century-long history of anecdotal evidence supporting carrageenan safety, as well as decades of research performed by the most respected research groups in the field, and we have commissioned much of that research,” said Amy O’Shea, health and nutritional global marketing director for FMC Corp. “Our customers know that in a wide variety of applications carrageenan is the ideal stabilizer and the only one that performs efficiently without altering things like taste or color.”
Yet in 2014 WhiteWave Foods Co., Broomfield, Colo., announced plans to remove carrageenan from its Silk and Horizon Organic products because of consumer concern.
“Once a consumer group has made up its mind, or even a company has made up its mind, it’s not going to change,” said Dr. Clemens, who is also an adjunct professor of pharmaceutical sciences and associate director of the regulatory science program at the University of Southern California’s School of Pharmacy. “You realize those (changes) are linked to sales. They are linked to consumerism. They are linked to perception. When you look at those linkages, a company is not going to change. They are not going to say, ‘Oh, my gosh. I made a mistake.’”
Reasons to respond
Companies still should consider different ways to respond to studies, said Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., principal of Corvus Blue, L.L.C., a food science and research firm based in Chicago.
“It is something about lies, damned lies and scientific studies that can sometimes take a life of their own to perpetuate the misinformation (at a) faster pace than the truth can take hold,” she said. “The result today can range from mildly negative and disparaging to brutally hard on the business and even perceived integrity of the affected company.
“It is really important for companies to take charge of their business and to address the issue on hand and underlying reason for the discrepancy(ies) to help the media and the public-at-large understand that the scientific study is not necessarily a true reflection of their portfolio of products or processes.”
Recent financial results show why FMC Corp. has reason to defend its ingredients. Fourth-quarter revenue in fiscal year 2015 for FMC Health and Nutrition was $172 million, 10% lower compared to the fourth quarter of the previous year, driven by lower carrageenan and alginate sales along with the impact of a weaker euro.
FMC Corp. has funded research for a paper that appeared on-line Nov. 23, 2015, in Food and Chemical Toxicology. Myra L. Weiner, Ph.D., a board certified toxicologist and president of TOXpertise, L.L.C., Princeton, N.J., authored the study. She has published studies on carrageenan that date to the late 1980s and worked for 29 years at FMC Corp.
Dr. Weiner said some carrageenan studies used bad or tumor-derived cells. Others used poligeenan, or degraded carrageenan, which is possibly carcinogenic in humans. The Food and Drug Administration only permits food grade carrageenan in food. Carrageenan suppliers provide certificates of analysis, Dr. Weiner said. Other studies had animals such as rodents consume carrageenan in ways that humans would not consume carrageenan.
Dr. Weiner’s paper called for better methods for studying food additives in general.
“Interpretation of new studies on food additives should consider the interaction of food additives with the vehicle components and the appropriateness of the animal or cell model and dose-response,” the paper said.
Dr. Clemens wrote an article that appeared on the WebMD web site and was more targeted toward consumers. Besides providing evidence on the safety of carrageenan, he explained how the ingredient gives a smooth mouthfeel in food and keeps chocolate from separating from the milk in chocolate milk.
Dr. Shelke said companies in general should consider writing a letter to the editor of the journal that originally published a study shedding a negative image on their product. A company could write a follow-up press release citing the study and how the company’s portfolio does not come under the scientific finding. Trade publications, company web sites and social media outlets are other options.
“If the implications of the scientific study touch upon regulatory aspects of the company’s product, then a note to the F.D.A., U.S.D.A. or the relevant governing body would be a sensible way to address everyone that matters,” Dr. Shelke said.
She urged caution about whether to point out how a study might be flawed.
“It would be more productive to explain the differences between the conditions of the study and the company’s line of work than to throw stones and cast the study as misleading or flawed,” Dr. Shelke said. “A simple ‘here’s what the study found’ plus ‘here’s why these do not apply to our products’ is usually more effective in changing the reader’s mind than an outwardly defensive or offensive approach. The forum for this should be wherever the initial report was published and wherever audiences that matter can be reached.”
Views on carrageenan
The F.D.A. already supports the use of carrageenan as a food ingredient. A Joint F.A.O./W.H.O. Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) supported carrageenan on July 2, 2014, when it gave conclusions and summaries on the safety of nine food additives.
“The committee concluded that the use of carrageenan in infant formula or formula for special medical purposes at concentrations up to 1,000 mg per liter is not of concern,” the report said.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, recommends “caution” in the intake of carrageenan, noting that food grade carrageenan does not cause cancer in animals but it does contain small amounts of degraded carrageenan, or poligeenan, that is possibly carcinogenic in humans.
“While any possible cancer risk would be quite small, some people may wish to err on the side of caution and avoid carrageenan,” the C.S.P.I. said.
In comparison, the C.S.P.I. also recommends “caution” in the intake of monk fruit extract, a natural sweetener.
“This product has not been well tested in animals,” the C.S.P.I. said. “It is derived from a fruit that has been consumed in China for at least several hundred years and used as an herbal medicine for the past several decades. So it may well be safe although any chronic adverse effects might easily have escaped detection.”
The Cornucopia Institute, Cornucopia, Wis., has voiced problems with carrageenan. In a March 2013 report The Cornucopia Institute said animal studies have shown food grade carrageenan causes gastrointestinal inflammation and higher rates of intestinal lesions, ulcerations and even malignant tumors. The report also featured specific people giving examples of how they believed carrageenan had been responsible for their digestion problems, ranging from stomach cramps to diarrhea to vomiting.
In a letter dated March 15, 2013, and sent to the Food and Drug Administration, the Cornucopia Institute stated that a trade group for carrageenan manufacturers had found samples of food-grade carrageenan that contained higher than 5% degraded carrageenan.
More than a year after the Cornucopia letter, the WhiteWave Foods Co. announced plans to remove carrageenan from its Silk and Horizon Organic products. A Facebook posting on Aug. 21, 2014, for Silk said, “Even though it is safe, our consumers have told us they want products without it.”
Blogger Vani Hari, also known as “The Food Babe,” applauded the move and urged her readers to avoid all products industrywide that include carrageenan on the ingredient list.
FMC Corp. will continue to defend carrageenan.
“We respond promptly and carefully to traditional science, trade and consumer media regarding carrageenan safety,” Ms. O’Shea said. “In social media, we engage in an honest and transparent way to educate consumers or correct misinformation.
“We answer to food regulatory agencies around the world, and we respond quickly to questions and initiate conversations about the quality of carrageenan science whenever it is appropriate.”