Sense about Science 'unmasks' food claimsResearch seeks science behind marketing

10 October 2007

 

A report out today outlines a group of scientists’ efforts to get hold of the evidence behind ‘misleading and pseudoscientific’ product claims.

The researchers from the charity Sense about Science rang 11 companies in pursuit of evidence for claims made using ‘scientific-sounding language’ in the marketing of products including drinks and yoghurt and services such as health spas.

The report, There goes the science bit, includes transcripts of conversations with customer service helplines from companies including Nestle, which makes Ski yoghurt, and Champneys health resorts.

‘These organisations seem to think they can say anything they want - to a public that's none the wiser,’ said Frances Downey, of the charity Sense About Science, which promotes better public understanding of science. ‘Well they promote these "customer carelines", so it's about time they heard from a few customers who care about evidence.’

Pret a Manger

The team also contacted the sandwich company Pret a Manger about its claim of not using ‘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: ‘I am frustrated by this belief that a naturally derived chemical is better for you than a synthetically derived one.’

The company 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).

Ski yoghurt

The report also tackles Nestle'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 scientists report that B vitamins bind to enzymes to speed up chemical reactions in the body's cells, but having extra B vitamins won’t produce any additional effect and any excess will just be excreted. 

A spokesperson for Nestle said: ‘Ski Activ8 does not give you additional energy per se (other than the calories provided by the yogurt) but rather it provides the vitamins and minerals involved in the body's energy-producing cycles.

'Ski yogurts are a naturally good source of calcium and protein that can make a nutritious contribution to a healthy diet. In addition, anyone who feels that their diet may be lacking in the important B vitamins and minerals needed to help us release the energy from our food may benefit from Ski Activ8. '

The 2001 medicine Nobel prize winner Sir Paul Nurse welcomed the Sense About Science report, saying a lack of science in producers and retailers had been ‘mercilessly exposed’ by intelligent scientists spending time ‘unmasking the empty pseudo-science’ of marketing claims.