NEW ORLEANS — Conflicting science, lack of context and inconsistent regulations around the world all contribute to consumers’ negative perceptions of food additives and artificial food ingredients. 

At IFT19, the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food expo held June 2-5 in New Orleans, James Coughlin, Ph.D., C.F.S., president, Coughlin & Associate; Martin Slayne, Ph.D., president, Slayne Consulting; and Tony Flood, senior director of food ingredient communications, International Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, detailed some of the misperceptions around these ingredients and how the food industry could move the conversation forward.

According to a consumer study by IFIC Foundation, 50% of consumers are concerned about chemicals in food, and 30% are concerned about food additives. While the organization did find that concern about food additives has declined over the past few years, the concern persists. This is largely because consumers are afraid of what they don’t understand, Mr. Flood explained.

“What we’re presenting to consumers is unfamiliar to them,” he said. “And it’s our job to change that.” 

Science without context seemed to be a major culprit in disseminating confusion around additives, and many other ingredients. It’s important to understand the difference between hazard and risk, Dr. Slayne said. A hazard is an entity that has the potential to cause harm; risk refers to the likelihood that a hazard would cause harm, which is dependent on the dose and how it’s consumed. This distinction often trips up consumers and the media.

“The world is made of chemicals,” he said. “Zero tolerance for chemicals is not possible, so regulations and legal decisions are based on risk rather than hazard.” 

When evaluating whether an ingredient is safe for consumption, regulatory and scientific agencies conduct risk assessments. These science-based reviews need to take into account the hazard but there are other important factors that often get left out of flashy headlines.

“We need to communicate the full context with all the stakeholders,” he said. “If you only communicate the hazard piece, you’re missing part of it and confusing people.” 

Dr. Coughlin echoed this, laying out three examples of ingredients that have received negative press because of lack of scientific context: BHA and BHT, nitrates and caffeine. BHA and BHT, for example, are two synthetic antioxidants developed in the 1980s.

“No clean label formulator would ever use these today,” said Dr. Coughlin, who worked on these projects. “They haven’t been banned, however, because we worked very hard to ensure they were safe for humans.” 

These two antioxidants, he said, get misunderstood because during animal testing, BHA was found to cause tumors, but only in rats’ forestomachs, an organ humans don’t have, leaving this finding’s relevance up for debate in the food industry. European studies on BHT found that rats treated with BHT lived longer than control rats. The BHT-treated rats developed liver tumors, but it was inconclusive whether those tumors, common in aging rats, developed due to BHT or the advanced age of the animals. While context may not clear up everything, it does provide nuance that doesn’t necessarily fit into a click-generating headline. 

Differing regulations around the world also adds to the confusion. What may be deemed safe in the United States might be banned in Europe, leading consumers to mistrusts agencies and industry. Dr. Payne sees an opportunity to overcome this problem in the CODEX Alimentarius, an international collection of standards for food, food processing and food safety. With a global standard regarding food colors in discussion that is well-supported by the industry, Dr. Payne believes global trade and consumer trust will become more stable. 

When it comes to dispelling misinformation about ingredients like additives, providing consumers some context will be critical.

“For the general consumer we have to put risk into context,” Mr. Flood said. “Balance out messages with a benefit message. Address conflicting information with care and attention to the consumer and realize that science doesn’t always sell.”