Guest post from Lauren Tedaldi, Sense About Science

Have you noticed plastic products labelled as ‘BPA-free’*, heard that Coca-Cola recently removed a specific vegetable oil from its US products** or do you remember the time when there were no blue smarties***? When companies change the way they produce common, long-standing products, we reasonably assume that they have good reasons for doing so: we all know the adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ right? In reality, companies can be forced to act on the modified version: ‘If enough people think it’s broken— even if there is no evidence that it is—then you’d better fix it if you want to keep selling it.’

Consumer pressure is a force to be reckoned with. Owing in large part to the internet, consumers now have more access to information than ever before. People can search almost every online discussion ever had about a particular product or additive before making a decision. While this has the potential benefit of making people better informed, the flip-side is that the internet and media are littered with misconceptions, myths and pure fallacies, which come up time and time again. For example, the idea that you can live a ‘chemical-free’ life is used by many food-producers; and ‘natural ingredients’ is used as a synonym for ‘good’ in cosmetics and toiletries. But every single thing you come into contact with is made from chemicals: your book, your iPad, yourself! What’s more, not all naturally occurring substances are good for you: the pesticide strychnine, the highly toxic poison for which there is no antidote, is entirely natural – it’s isolated from the strychnine tree.

At Sense About Science, we spend more of our time responding to chemical scare stories, helping journalists pre-empt this narrative, than almost any other single issue. We regularly work with scientists frustrated at the hype around their research. This has changed relatively little over the 10-plus years we’ve been working to tackle chemical myths (Making sense of chemical stories was first launched in 2006). There has been some change: beauty journalists are now more aware and seek advice from a toxicologist or cosmetics scientist more often; and we regularly see detox diets and products debunked across national press and magazines. But we continue to see high profile chemical scares hitting the headlines.

When we see recurring misinformation we respond with our public guides. Teachers and midwives and others who are helping people cut through the noise, as well as journalists and policy makers – who the original guide was written for – have been requesting copies of the guide. So on 19 May 2014 we launched a new edition of Making sense of chemical stories. By capturing insights from the chemists and dieticians who developed the guide, we address six common chemical myths. Armed with these six points, anyone can critique the chemical stories they see:

  1. You can’t lead a chemical-free life
  2. Natural isn’t always good for you and man-made chemicals are not inherently dangerous
  3. Synthetic chemicals are not causing many cancers and other diseases
  4. “Detox” is a marketing myth
  5. We need man-made chemicals
  6. We are not just subjects in an unregulated, uncontrolled environment, there are checks in place

In the guide, we look at common consumer issues to debunk widespread myths. Why are labels such as ‘no artificial ingredients’ or ‘additive free’ seen as good things on our products? Dr Paul Illing, a toxicologist, talks about why additives in food are useful in some cases:

‘Additives have been around for centuries. Many agents that are essential for commercial food preparation and storage have their analogues in the kitchen. Caramel (E150a), a colouring agent, can be made at home by heating sugar. Some additives are clearly beneficial: in 1941 calcium was added to flour to prevent rickets; and antioxidants (necessary to prevent the fats in all prepared foods involving meat or pastry from going rancid) include ascorbic acid (vitamin C, E300) and the tocopherols (vitamin E, E306-309).’

 The guide highlights to consumers that products are not inherently better just because they don’t contain additives.

Professor Danka Tamburic, a specialist in cosmetic science, goes on to explain that we also need certain additives in cosmetics:

‘Most cosmetics and toiletries contain water, hence make a good substrate for growing microbes (eg bacteria or fungi). Proper preservation of cosmetics and toiletries is a necessity, not a choice. Bacterial cells are too small for the naked eye to detect, but if there are enough of them in the product, they may cause skin infections and other problems, especially if the skin is already damaged (cut, bruised or sore). Contaminated products could cause ye infections and, in extreme cases, blindness.’

We urge people, next time you are thinking about paying more for something simply because it’s ‘additive-free’, ‘100% natural’, or ‘detoxifying’, you might want to stop and think whether it’s worth paying a premium for a chemical misconception.

 

The full version of the guide can be found here or visit Sense About Science to see more of our public guides that can help you make evidence-based decisions about the products you choose to buy.

*Bis-phenol A (BPA) is a chemical that is used in manufacturing clear rigid plastic, like water bottles, and there is no compelling evidence that the level of exposure from plastic bottles and packaging is damaging to health

**Coca-Cola has removed brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from its US products (it is not in their European products) owing to consumer pressure. BVO is often incorrectly linked to the toxicity and accumulation data from brominated flame retardants

***Nestlé removed the colouring Brilliant Blue (E133) and replaced it with a natural colourant called spirulina after consumer pressure to go ‘artificial additive-free’. There is no strong evidence for a link between E133 and hyperactivity, and spirulina itself has adverse effects at high concentrations. However, it is often preferred as the natural choice

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