Some Food Ingredients: Are They Harmful or Do They Just Sound Bad?

03/16/2015 04:40 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015

When consumers learned, as a result of a lawsuit, that taco filling contained ingredients such as silicon dioxide and anti-dusting agents, many became alarmed -- even though anti-dusting agents made from natural food ingredients are necessary to prevent food factories from exploding. Then, when they learned that some hamburger products had an ingredient that a USDA microbiologist called Pink Slime, some were so outraged that they began a relentless attack on companies that used this ingredient. This was followed by an uproar when a vegan barista announced that Starbucks used red dye from crushed beetles in some of its bakery and drink products. What many consumers do not know is that "beetle juice" is commonly used and healthier than other red dyes, such as Red 40, but it is not vegetarian or Kosher. Then, we were informed that chicken nuggets, which so many kids love to eat, has less chicken then you think and a lot of fat, skin, veins and bones - or what's leftover when most of the chicken meat is removed. Now, as a result of pressure from an organization that promotes corporate responsibility, As You Sow, Dunkin' Donuts has agreed to remove titanium dioxide from its powdered sugar donuts.

'Although 'food-grade' titanium dioxide is approved by the FDA, it is the nature of nanoparticles that concerns us' said Andrew Behar, CEO of environmental health watchdog As You Sow. 'When a particle is so small that it can pass through a cell membrane and pass through the placental and blood-brain barriers, we think safety testing should be required before it is added to our food.'

Even though there are differences of opinion on the possible harmful effects of titanium dioxide, the metallic and scientific connotations this ingredient generates in the human brain is enough to cause public concern.

Are the ingredients harmful or do they just sound bad?

For many years, some ingredients that have been routinely included in food, sunscreen and cosmetics sold to the public have attracted little attention. The FDA and other government agencies approved them because they do not pose material health risks. While all agencies can make mistakes, the FDA is very careful before it approves any food or drug that is ingested by humans. As marketers know, the FDA also has stringent requirements for allowing food companies to make health claims on their labels. Even so, when events or people shine a light on "awful-sounding" ingredients and "brand" them with a decidedly negative (or even repulsive) label, the damaging effect can harm sales of the product and the associated brand.

Hijacked Media

The branding of ingredients by members of the public that create decidedly negative images is one of the hazards of doing business in the era of social media. People with (1) a justified complaint about ingredients in your products or (2) a negative agenda might brand them with a damaging label (pink slime; beetle juice; titanium dioxide; anti-dusting agents; or veins, skin, nerves and bones) -- creating rapidly-growing viral pyramids that do significant damage to a brand's bottom line. Marketers have a new term for this process - hijacked media. It is the opposite of earned media where fans spread the positive word about your company and products.

It is great that people are watching

In the case of ingredients that are harmful, we should be grateful to creative people that effectively brand "bad" ingredients for our own good. If nothing else, they are at least informing us about what we are consuming so we can make our own decisions as to what is more helpful and harmful.

Government funding for safety inspectors

The continuous threat of government shutdowns and the ongoing wrangling over paying for safety inspectors has many concerned about the safety of consumer products. Without Government inspectors, consumer product companies have to self-regulate, and many are concerned about what might happen when foxes guard hen houses.

What if you are the victim of negative branding or hijacked media?

As is too often the case, the "good guys" pay the price for what "bad guys" do. If this happens to you or your company, you have to address the issue head on in the most appropriate way possible. There are three basic cases and proven ways to handle them.

  1. Rumor. If you are the victim of a rumor, (1) don't publicize the rumor, (2) promote the opposite of what the rumor says (without mentioning the rumor) and (3) provide undeniable, credible, 3rd-party proof to support in your promotion.
  2. Fact. If you did something wrong, (1) admit and apologize, (2) limit the scope to put the mistake in perspective (everyone makes them) and (3) provide a solution so it will not reoccur.
  3. Negatives into positives. Use the "negative situation" that has occurred between you and the offended parties as an opportunity to build a closer relationship with them. This might involve replacing the product, changing the formula, giving them a coupon or rebate or whatever is required (within reason and budget) to repair or reverse the damage.

The key is you have to respond to the negative branding, or brand hijacks. If you are silent or deny the rumor without providing proof, people presume you are guilty because lots of others before you have done that and were later found to be at fault. Hopefully this will never happen to you. If it does, proper execution of the recommended steps above should help you to navigate the rough seas. As always, best of luck.