Free from perspective

It’s the eve of Coeliac Awareness Week, gluten-related stories are starting to appear in the media, and I look forward to seeing what emerges in the coming days. Social media has already been a hive of activity concerning an article in the Evening Standard written by Wheat Out’s Miranda Bryant this week, but another piece which caught my eye was this piece in the Guardian, written by the Voice of Young Science Network’s Victoria Murphy. 

In it, she argues that ‘free from’ messages ‘misinform customers about health risks’ and that supermarkets are ‘playing on people’s fears’. She is particularly interested in MSG and aspartame, which she states are both ‘safe’. Quite bafflingly, she argues that supermarkets need ‘to promote evidence’. I’m not entirely sure why supermarkets have borne the brunt of this attack, given food manufacturers in general make these kinds of statements on their foods, but anyway … 

Let me say upfront I have faith in scientific method, and that I’m in wholehearted support of the rationalists and scientists concerning those notorious subjects which typically exercise them – homeopathy and vaccines, for instance. 

But when scientists see only science, science and nothing but science, perspective can be lost. The whole article is founded on a basis that ‘free from’ messages are exclusively about science and ‘safety’ – and they are not. 

There are many reasons people need or choose to avoid ingredients or products. Here are some: food allergies (eg nuts), food intolerance (lactose), coeliac disease (gluten), ethical reasons (meat or animal produce, or meat reared / slaughtered in particular ways), religious sensibilities (certain animal products again, alcohol, methods of food preparation … ), environmental concerns (food transported by air, grown under certain conditions, sustainability …), palatability (many don’t like artificial or supplementary flavouring – aspartame tastes grim to many …) and so on. 

Free From or similar messaging can help all these consumers. 

As for parabens, a class of preservatives used in cosmetic substances, I agree that lack of safety has not been proven, but concerns remain, enough for the European Commission’s Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety to decide last year to look again at the evidence in detail. Whatever the outcome, some people are allergic to parabens – they are on the testing panels used by dermatologists to identify contact allergens – and ‘parabens free’ labelling is of great reassurance to them. 

The article presupposes that consumers are only interested in products which are not going to harm them and that labelling messages are only about medical concerns, and is based on a blinkered science-dominant starting point – a dogma which fails to take into account what people actually feel, or what their personal sensibilities are, or their views of the world, or their individual tastes, which don’t fit into the right-wrong, yes-no framework scientists sometimes struggle to see past. 

Disappointingly, the author of the piece fails to credit consumers with much savvy, either. Common sense ought to tell us that ‘free from’ messaging does not always imply medical undesirability or lack of safety – does ‘calorie free’ messaging promote the idea that calories are out to get you? 

But OK, fair enough, some may see ‘free from artificial sweeteners’ or (of course) ‘gluten free’ and think those things are universally bad – I’ve no doubt that this happens and yes it is the duty of food manufacturers to not mislead. But it is this fact, in that case, which needs to be communicated to consumers. Why advocate the removal of messages simply because some may misinterpret them? 

Breathtakingly, in their open letter to the main supermarkets, the VofYS accuse their use of what they call ‘negative marketing’ as ‘short sighted’. 

A sweeping undermining of ‘free from’ messaging – which many have come to rely on for any number of reasons – is what is in my view short-sighted, and this righteous attack which fails to consider the full picture is hardly the way forward.

1 Comment

  1. Michelle Berriedale-Johnson

    Here, here! Well said, Alex.


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