How shoppers ‘are blinded by shoddy science of firms

The scientific claims used to sell a wide range of products to health-conscious customers were exposed as dubious or unfounded yesterday. A group of young scientists and researchers contacted manufacturers’ customer care lines to challenge the claims made for 11 products or brands from sandwiches and yoghurt to health spa accessories and Himalayan salt lamps.

In the report, called There Goes The Science Bit, they describe how staff were often unable to back up the sales pitches.

Many callers were referred up the chain of command, even to managing director level, without being offered a satisfactory response.

The research was funded and published by Sense About Science, an independent charitable trust which promotes better public understanding of science.

One of the companies targeted was sandwich chain Pret a Manger, which claims it does not use ‘obscure chemicals’.

It told the report’s authors: ‘We don’t use any chemicals to preserve, or to avoid any insects . . . it’s all natural.’

Alice Tuff, of Sense About Science, said she was ‘frustrated’ by the mistaken belief that a naturally derived chemical is better than a synthetic one, when there is no difference.

Pret a Manger says it avoids compounds such as sodium benzoate and minimises use of food additives tagged as E numbers.

However sodium benzoate occurs naturally in apples and cranberries, and Sense About Science says the company uses E250 (sodium nitrite) and E500 (an ingredient of baking powder). Jay Chapman, the firm’s marketing manager, said: ‘It is impossible to avoid all chemicals and E numbers. We don’t say that we don’t use them at all but that we avoid them if possible.’

The report also singles out Nestlé’s Ski Activ8 yoghurt, marketed as a ‘unique blend of eight B vitamins and minerals, each proven to optimise the release of energy from our diet’.

On its website the company says ‘combined with a healthy diet, lifestyle and exercise, a diet which includes Ski Activ8 can help recharge our batteries’. The company seems to be referring to B vitamins binding to enzymes and so speeding up chemical reactions in the body’s cells, but, according to Sense About Science, if you already get sufficient vitamins these would not have any effect – they would just be excreted.

When the SAS caller contacted Nestlé, he was transferred to Ski’s nutritionist, who conceded the point.

A spokesman for the company said the yoghurt provides ‘vitamins and minerals involved in the body’s energy-producing cycles’ and may benefit anyone lacking ‘important B vitamins and minerals’ needed to release energy from our food.

Other companies highlighted in the report included supermarket chains Sainsbury’s and Co-op, which were both accused of manipulating science to justify changes to product content. The 2001 medicine Nobel prize winner Sir Paul Nurse applauded the Sense About Science report, saying producers’ and retailers’ lack of science had been ‘mercilessly exposed’ by intelligent scientists prepared to spend time ‘unmasking the empty pseudoscience’ of the claims.

Peter Atkins, chemistry professor at Oxford University, said: ‘The public is well served by scientists prepared to spend time exposing scientific nonsense . . . they should be applauded for acting as warriors against claptrap.’


4 responses to “How shoppers ‘are blinded by shoddy science of firms

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