If we are what we eat, it makes sense that consumers can be choosy when it comes to what they put into their bodies. Clean ingredient decks are in; preservatives, processed foods, and additives are out. While some shoppers adhere to the healthy eating trend by avoiding the interior aisles of the supermarket, others do so by selecting stores that carry organic or health foods, and others still examine ingredient lists, looking for predetermined disqualifying additions or simply seeking components with which they are familiar. The common rule of thumb for these consumers being, “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t buy it!”.
This particular line of thought inspired photographer Dwight Eschliman and writer Steve Ettliner to diver deeper into these unpronounceable additives with the hopes of turning questions into answers and confusion into clarity. Their new book, Ingredients, does just this—cataloging and studying 75 common food additives, and placing them into one of three categories: neutral, negative, and positive. In her article for NPR about the book, ‘Ingredients’: An Eye-Opening Look At The Additives In Our Food, Tove Danovich explores some of the more surprising findings including the misconstruction of MSG, the misinformation regarding the “yoga mat chemical,” and which food additive was near impossible for the authors to acquire for their study (spoiler alert: high fructose corn syrup). The book’s overall conclusion is that additives are not necessarily as scary and harmful as the majority of consumers may believe. Yes, some are found in non-food entities as well, but that does not mean they are unsafe for human consumption or unnecessary in food.
These conclusions are interesting when viewed in conjunction with big food companies phasing out artificial colors and flavors from their products in response to public outcry. Would demystifying be an acceptable replacement for withdrawal in the arena of additives? The book aims to erase question marks in favor of accurate explanations, but its impact will only go as far as people are willing to listen. Saying goodbye to blue Trix seems worth it if that removal betters your health, but if an additive is neutral, is it worth removing? While it is hard to imagine launching a successful campaign to keep all additives in food, the potential brought by unmasking these types of ingredients is intriguing.
Consumers (yes, even us) are fickle and perception becomes reality. For companies, there can exist a conflict of interest between profitability and “doing the right thing” which, with the help of a plethora of well-know examples (seen most recently with Volkswagen) perpetuates skepticism and limits what CPG companies can do to counteract negative perceptions of certain “okay” ingredients. As is the nature of trends, some pass quickly, some plant roots as cultural mainstays, and some will fall somewhere in between; companies will do well to regain and maintain their consumers’ trust during these ebbs and flows of trends. Engaging with customers through ongoing co-creation and intuition-building initiatives, while also appealing to them publicly through social media and community engagement, will allow for a more transparent dialogue between company, product, and purchaser.
-Mary Dolan O’Brien, Project Coordinator