Too Many Food Companies Still Attack Science, Despite Push for Greater Transparency

July 16, 2014 | 3:10 pm
Aaron Huertas
Former Contributor

In the age of Twitter and online petitions, food companies are doing more to respond to consumer demand for information about what we’re eating, according to Ad Age. But too often, companies are still sidelining and attacking science at the root of consumers’ concerns. It doesn’t have to be this way.

A bad PR strategy: making fun of science

Eyes in the Aisles: Why is Cap’n Crunch Looking Down at My Child? Environment & Behavior

An image from Aviva Musicus, Aner Tal, and Brian Wansink. (2014) Eyes in the Aisles: Why is Cap’n Crunch Looking Down at My Child? Environment & Behavior

Ad Age cites General Mills’ response to a Cornell University study as an example of a company wading into a public debate they might have ignored in the old media environment.

The study found that cartoon characters on cereal boxes often make “eye contact” with children walking down a supermarket aisle. Unfortunately, Tom Forsythe, the company’s Vice President for Global Communication, responded by calling the study “absurd.” He suggested the university should retract the paper, despite the fact that it was published in a peer-reviewed journal, not by the university. He also conducted a short-sighted “debunking” by Google-image searching Trix cereal boxes and highlighting ones on which the cartoon rabbit is looking in odd directions.

I sympathize (a bit) with Forsythe. The study got a lot of play and its implication – that food companies are going so far as to carefully calibrate cartoon characters’ gazes to target young consumers – is worth responding to. But Forsythe didn’t really grapple with the research. How do companies pick the cartoon images on cereal boxes, anyway? Perhaps he could have assuaged the consumer ire the research provoked without ragging on it.

The company’s dismissive, knee-jerk response to this study is indicative of an industry that is still grappling with how to handle science it doesn’t like.

Under pressure, companies selectively embrace transparency

Ad Age also cites the work of Vani Hari, a food activist who runs the popular Food Babe blog. Hari writes that her own poor eating habits and subsequent health problems prompted her to become more aware of her food choices and begin writing about food issues online.

Hari wants to empower consumers with more information. That’s excellent, and I appreciate her intentions, but she gets the science wrong sometimes, according to Science-Based Medicine, a site that tracks bogus medical claims. Hari has oversold the dangers of flu shots, for instance, and misread a study on the health effects of microwaving food.

Still, she’s created a powerful online soapbox and has gotten some significant concessions from food companies. This year, Hari pressured Subway to drop azodicarbonamide from its food. The compound, which is used in food as well as manufacturing, certainly sounds scary, but it’s not clear how dangerous it is, according to media reports. Nevertheless, the product is easy to replace, so Subway complied rather than pick a fight over the science.

MillerCoors Nutrition information

Miller HighLife, my go-to affordable beer, is made with water, barley malt, corn, yeast, and hops. Source: MillerCoors

Similarly, Hari and her readers pressured Anheuser-Busch InBev to disclose the ingredients they use in their beer, which they aren’t required to do by law. The company decided to list its ingredients online, Ad Age writes, because they are innocuous: water, barley, corn, yeast, and hops.

On a more complex topic, Hari has also called for labeling genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. Like many activists, she cites reasons backed up by science, including ones UCS has raised. Heavy reliance on certain GE crops leads to more pesticide use and resistant weeds, for starters. But she also cites claims that are on shakier ground, including controversial links between GE and cancer in animal studies.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a powerful food manufacturers’ lobbying group, is strongly opposed to GE labeling. Like other industry groups, GMA expends its PR resources debunking inaccurate health claims activists make, but ignores scientific evidence that GE technology creates environmental risks. As a result, the scientific nuances of the debate are almost always lost to the media and public.

Companies opt for intransigence and selective transparency on added sugar

The Ad Age article didn’t deal with the issue of added sugar, but it’s also illustrative. Companies have been adding sugar to everything from bread, to yogurt, to cereal and soup. In this case, the science linking sugar overconsumption to illnesses, including heart disease, is crystalline. Activists have called for more disclosure and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering an added sugar line for the ubiquitous Nutrition Facts label.

Facts up front. Photo: Deborah Bailin.

Facts Up Front on Cheerios protein. Also note the more prominent plug for the cereal’s protein content. Photo: Deborah Bailin.

But as my colleague Gretchen Goldman has noted, some sugar interests are still trying to tell the FDA that the science isn’t there. Food companies are also trying to get out ahead of the public – and regulators – by putting select nutritional information on the front of the box. But GMA’s Facts Up Front initiative doesn’t represent real transparency. Companies highlight the good stuff on the front of the box — protein, whole grains, etc. — while still obscuring how much sugar they’re adding to products. As my colleague Deborah Bailin found, a serving of Cheerios Protein contains more sugar than a helping of Oreo ice cream.

Can companies respect the science even as they argue about policy?

It’s easy for companies to take an antagonistic stand toward science that finds health risks associated with their products. We’ve certainly seen that happen on tobacco, lead, asbestos, and fossil fuel production. But they need to do a better job dealing with – and respecting – science.

Do food activists sometimes overstate their case? Yes. But that’s no excuse for companies to ignore mainstream science.

Food companies should step back and reassess how they engage in these debates. Cowing to consumer demands when their bottom lines won’t be impacted is easy. Honestly engaging with consumers and scientists when the science points to real risks associated with their products is tougher, but far more fruitful for their long-term credibility with policymakers and the public.

We can have a fair debate about how to respond to the risks scientists have identified, but companies should never short-change consumers by attacking research or spreading misinformation. When they do that, everyone loses.