How companies respond when consumers blame ingredients for making them ill
Shoppers have wanted more transparency about the food and drinks they buy, demanding additional testing to ensure the safety of products.
After starting to regularly drink organic almond milk, Jesse Vear began to experience painful stomach churning and cramping that went on for hours.
Vear was keeping a food log at the time and discovered the cramping began at the same time that they started drinking the almond milk, which contained popular emulsifier carrageenan. Vear, a consumer in Portland, Maine, is one of many who fill 58 pages of public comments compiled by consumer activist group Cornucopia Institute claiming carrageenan made them ill and asking for the ingredient to taken out of food.
But carrageenan is just one example. Some consumers stay away from certain ingredients because they claim they cause health problems, although they legally can be in food products.
In recent years, shoppers have wanted more transparency about the food and drinks they buy, especially when they feel ill after eating a product, or someone claims an ingredient could have negative side effects.
Simply claiming an ingredient was the cause of an illness doesn't mean anything, but any negative accusation can have dramatic effects on ingredients and the companies that use them. Concerned consumers may choose to buy other products, and the claims — erroneous or not — may hurt a company's reputation as a whole.
Carrageenan and algal flour are among ingredients that consumers in recent years have blamed for illnesses. Companies that use those ingredients have largely denied they caused problems, and have used internal testing to prove they were safe.
But some say more could be done. Experts told Food Dive companies should use more outside testing resources if they want to be transparent — and avoid later accusations.
"There are definitely companies out there that are doing their best work to stay ahead of the regulatory hurdles and are attempting to run scientific studies to help understand what happens when those ingredients get broken down within the body. But it's hit and miss."
Associate professor at North Carolina State University
Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at the Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences at North Carolina State University, told Food Dive that when analyzing the safety of ingredients, companies should be testing consumers' physical reactions to them and actively asking questions in a scientific way.
"There are some very good businesses and then there are some not-so-good businesses," Chapman said. "There are definitely companies out there that are doing their best work to stay ahead of the regulatory hurdles and are attempting to run scientific studies to help understand what happens when those ingredients get broken down within the body. But it's hit and miss."
Since an accusation that an ingredient made consumers sick can cause a ripple effect in the industry, how do consumers and companies respond to this kind of claim to ensure product safety and protect their reputation?
Emulsifier or problem: A look at carrageenan
An ingredient that has faced a lot of controversy in recent years is carrageenan, a common food additive that is extracted from red seaweed. Carrageenan has been used as a thickener to improve the texture of products like yogurt, soy milk and other processed foods. The ingredient has been associated with stomach discomfort by researchers and consumers. Food companies have denied the ingredient contributed to these issues.
Joanne Tobacman, a physician and professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, has been researching the health effects of carrageenan for more than a decade. In 2008, she filed a petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prohibit the use of carrageenan in food. Four years later, FDA summarily denied the petition, citing that the existing literature the agency found on the topic did not support her request.
But Tobacman told Food Dive that decades of research and studies back up the claims that carrageenan causes these issues.
"We've identified pathways by which carrageenan, particularly in intestinal cells, causes inflammation," she said.
She said the industry has been very active in trying to show that the ingredient is not harmful, but an "overwhelming amount of evidence with thousands of reports" show that carrageenan can cause inflammation.
But not everyone agrees with her research.
"We in the nutrition community feel pretty strongly about the essentiality of carrageenan and the importance of keeping it in the food industry," Susan Finn, a registered dietitian and past president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Food Dive in 2016 before the National Organic Standards Board voted on whether the ingredient could be in organic food.
"We've identified pathways by which carrageenan, particularly in intestinal cells, causes inflammation."
Researcher and professor at the University of Illinois
In response to claims made by researchers like Tobacman and concern from consumers, some companies have replaced the ingredient. Others have conducted their own studies to prove carrageenan's safety.
In 2016, the NOSB, which advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture, voted to remove carrageenan from the list of ingredients approved for use in organic food. The USDA usually takes the NOSB's recommendations, but this time they did not because the department ruled potential substitutes didn't adequately replicate the functions of carrageenan.
Cornucopia Institute co-founder Mark Kastel told Food Dive his group has fought to prohibit carrageenan in organic food for almost a decade. There is a growing body of scientific evidence that indicates carrageenan is a potent inflammatory agent and a possible carcinogen, he said, defining it as "the exact kind of ingredient that should come off the list."
"In every product category, there are really good choices made without carrageenan," Kastel said. "...Almost every major organic manufacturer took it out of their formulations based on consumer pressure."
However, many organic products still contain it.
Pacific Foods makes organic non-dairy beverages, soups and broths, some of which still contain carrageenan. Brand manager Kari Davis told Food Dive in an email that the company verifies the origin of every ingredient it uses — nearly 2,000 — through its Certified to the Source program "to ensure product integrity and quality." Davis said the company hasn't found proof of consumer discomfort, but has removed the ingredient from some products.
Davis said consumer feedback was the inspiration behind reformulating their plant-based beverages. The company's Almond, Cashew, Oat, Hemp, Hazelnut, Coconut, Unsweetened Soy and Ultra Soy Plant Beverages are carrageenan free and are starting to hit shelves this year.
Soylent points a finger at algal flour
Almost three years ago, some Soylent consumers complained of gastrointestinal distress after eating the company's snack bars. During a voluntary recall, Soylent said the bar's algal flour could be the cause.
TerraVia was the supplier of the algal flour and strongly denied its ingredient was the problem, claiming a full investigation into the ingredient was not performed by Soylent. TerraVia decided to stop supplying ingredients to Soylent shortly after.
Overcoming bad press for an ingredient and reclaiming the narrative to keep products in good light for consumers means extensive testing and reassurance.
Jill Kauffman Johnson, head of global market development for algae ingredients at Corbion — which bought TerraVia in 2017 — told Food Dive the company is always concerned about customer safety.
"We were really surprised and disappointed that Soylent rushed to say that algal flour was to blame and removed the ingredient without ever providing any evidence that they conducted a full on investigation of their formulation," she said.
Kauffman Johnson said the company's products had never caused adverse reactions. After Soylent's accusation, TerraVia communicated to manufacturers that might use algal flour they were sure the ingredient was safe.
"We are really confident of the safety of our products and in the potential in the algae food platform," she said. "The product algal flour is generally regarded as safe and is in compliance with FDA regulations concerning substances for food use. We’ve been through processes with the FDA to show safety. We track when there are complaints to see what may be the cause."
Soylent declined to comment for this story.
"We were really surprised and disappointed that Soylent rushed to say that algal flour was to blame and removed the ingredient without ever providing any evidence that they conducted a full on investigation of their formulation."
Jill Kauffmann Johnson
Head of global market development for algae ingredients, Corbion
Despite the negative publicity from Soylent, more algae products are being seen in the food industry today. Even Walmart is selling Thrive Algae Oil, which could bring the ingredient more into the mainstream.
Kauffman Johnson thinks consumers are past the Soylent issue.
"We have seen a lot of excitement for the products, and we feel in our case that we are moving on, and customers are feeling confident about algae and really excited about the both the taste and the health potential," she said.
Proving the safety of ingredients across the industry
How should companies go about testing these products after a claim like this? Chapman said the best way to move on after a product has been associated with illness is to gather all the scientific data on the safety of ingredients and ensure consumers they understand what kind of interactions can happen between these proteins, molecules and micronutrients.
Charlie Ross, vice president of business development and global sales at Corbion, told Food Dive the company uses a product quality assurance program that requires tight product and testing specifications to ensure it is in compliance with FDA food safety guidelines.
"It is very rare that you can blame one ingredient immediately because of the interaction of all the ingredients in a formula," Ross said. "What is necessary and what is best practice is that an investigation should ensue immediately when a concern arises so that you can identify what is the potential cause of that situation and address it."
He said the company has assured customers and companies that its products are safe through testing and open communication. The company is now seeing more interest from CPG companies who want to incorporate algae into their products.
Enjoy Life Foods uses algal flour in its baking mixes. General manager and chief sales and marketing officer Joel Warady told Food Dive that algae protein has not been catching on with consumers as much as the company anticipated, but it is now getting more popular. He said algae protein was added to products because consumers wanted more protein in their free-from diets.
After news came out about possible issues with algae as an ingredient, Enjoy Life Foods looked into it. Warady said the company did both in-house and third-party testing on both algal flour itself and its reaction to other ingredients in their products. They found no issues.
"It is very rare that you can blame one ingredient immediately because of the interaction of all the ingredients in a formula."
Vice president of business development and global sales, Corbion
The claim from Soylent was "overblown," Warady said, but he saw the negative impact across the industry. When consumers claim an ingredient could make people ill, it usually needs to be reported widely and substantiated before it has a huge impact.
"We do testing of all of our ingredients. When we first introduced the baking mixes, Whole Foods had said they weren't going to allow algae protein products on their shelf (because of Soylent)," Warady said. "They subsequently did testing as well. And there was no problem with algae protein products."
He said it's possible the problem Soylent consumers had came from an interaction between the algae and another ingredient. Warady said Enjoy Life was going to add flax to a product when the company found that flax on its own was fine, but then when testing the interaction it had with some of the other ingredients it caused rancidity.
"It would be a knee-jerk reaction to say all flax is bad, but that was not the case," he said.
Warady said it is important for companies to be transparent about their ingredients and how they test them. They also need to quickly respond to consumers if there is a concern.
Increasing transparency to grow consumer trust
So how do manufacturers regain that trust after consumers have reported problems with their ingredients? Chapman told Food Dive that from a business standpoint, when companies bring a product into the market, they should always know the chemistry and biochemistry of all ingredients.
For companies to meet consumers' desire for increased transparency, they not only need to do extensive testing, but also have to show what they've done. Chapman said it's not enough to just share bullet points of a study. Companies need to share data to prove that these internal studies are unbiased.
This should especially be done with products targeted at consumers interested in healthier foods — like algae and organics — who are often selective and well-researched when it comes to the foods they choose to eat, he said.
"That's where things get a little bit dicey because people get pretty uptight about their private proprietary information," he said. "But if you're a food business asking me as a consumer to trust them, then what I want to see is, well, show me the data that this is something that isn't going to make me sick. Give me some level of assurance that you've done science in a way that's legitimate."
Follow Lillianna Byington on Twitter