June 11, 2015
Increasing numbers of supposedly health-conscious consumers are choosing products with “free from” labels, from “BPA-free” plastics to “non-GMO” foods. But such labels do not increase public safety. On the contrary, not only are many of the scary-sounding ingredients safe, but manufacturers, in their haste to meet consumer demand, sometimes substitute inferior, or even harmful, ingredients or processes.
The blame for this situation lies mainly with activists and the media for fanning unwarranted public fears. But a recent study demonstrates how manufacturers, by drawing attention to what they are omitting, perpetuate spurious concerns that actually drive consumers to take greater health risks.
The study explores, mainly through the lens of product labelling, how people evaluate the risks of Bisphenol A (BPA) — a chemical that is commonly used to harden plastics and prevent the growth of bacteria in food cans — compared with its alternatives. It found that “people evaluate a situation in which scientific evidence is tempered by controversy similarly to a situation in which there is no scientific evidence at all”.
In other words, because there have been questions about the safety of BPA, people disregard the scientific evidence. Concerns about BPA should have been put to rest long ago.
Years of research and assessments by government regulators — including one earlier this year by the European Food Safety Authority — have concluded that BPA is safe in normal use. It is the removal of BPA from the cans’ lining that may pose a threat to consumers’ health, by leading to an increase in foodborne illnesses from deadly bacteria.
Most people found out that BPA existed only when they saw a BPA-free sticker on bottles. But that label has a profound impact: It sends the unmistakable message that BPA is a health hazard. After all, if it were not, why would manufacturers exclude it from their products and tout that they had done so?
What consumers do not know, the study’s authors point out, is that BPA is often replaced with other, less-studied chemicals whose health implications are virtually unknown, and thus may prove to be worse than the original material. Yet, people remain so focused on the BPA-free label that they accept these potentially “regrettable” substitutions, exposing themselves to chemicals that they might otherwise reject.
[ See also: "Harvard Canned-Soup-BPA Study Called “POS” by JunkScience.com".
Here is an comment on the Junkscience.com review of the canned soup "study":
To summarise, nothing in their study is notable. Trace amount of BPA in canned soup/food - already known. BPA metabolite (not BPA per se) excreted in urine within hours after ingestion - known. BPA is rapidly metabolise by the body and no trace of BPA can be found in the blood just hours after ingestion - known but not acknowledged in their "study".
So what does the "study" acknowledge?
The effect of such intermittent elevations in urinary BPA concentration is unknown.Brilliant study. Not afraid to admit what they do not know. In fact, it just adds to the "fear factor". The fear of the unknown.
...it’s a non-peer-reviewed study highlighting the transient rise of urinary BPA (or really, a biologically inactive BPA metabolite) after eating canned soup, the significance of which is unknown.Be afraid. Be very afraid. Of alarmist, pseudo-scientific (or non-scientific conspiracy theorist cloaking their conspiracy theories with the illusion of "science". ]
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) face a similarly problematic stigma — one that compelled General Mills and Post Foods to eliminate GMOs from their Cheerios and Grape Nuts cereals, respectively.
In trying to meet a perceived consumer demand, the manufacturers had to make substitutions — namely, marketing products that lack some added vitamins. It is ironic that, to please their customers, they have begun offering inferior products at higher prices.
Consumers are not the only ones whose inadequate consideration of the facts is resulting in substitutions. Governments, too, are making hasty, wrong-headed decisions that deny consumers a choice. Consider the European Union’s politically motivated decision to ban, in 2013, the state-of-the-art pesticides called neonicotinoids.
Forced to resort to older, more toxic, and less effective pesticides, Europe’s farmers are seeing a resurgence of insect predation. The damage may cause a 15 per cent drop in this year’s harvest of canola, the continent’s primary source of vegetable oil used in food and biodiesel.
There are important lessons to be learned. First, when manufacturers allow their decisions to be guided by pressure from activists, not scientific evidence, they risk eventual consumer dissatisfaction and potential product-liability lawsuits. Likewise, policymakers should emphasise science over politics.
The public, too, has a vital role to play: Maintaining a healthy scepticism regarding the claims of self-interested, self-styled “consumer advocates”.
Putting science first now is the best way to ensure that we, as consumers, have no regrets later.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Henry I Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the United States Food and Drug Administration.