Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Cola, BPA, and Our Aversion to Risk

Recently, Campbell Soup made the decision to move away from cans that contain BPA the lining. Was it justified? FDA initially concluded that BPA was not a risk, but after public pressure, they are reevaluating its safety.

 Another controversy brewing is the caramel color that gives cola soft drinks their brown color. The chemical, 4-methylimidazole (4-MI), is formed when the caramel color is manufactured. According the FDA, the levels found in soda are well below any concern. The FDA spokesman, Doug Karas stated "A consumer would have to consume well over a thousand cans of soda a day to reach the doses administered in the studies that have shown links to cancer in rodents”. However, the consumer watchdog group, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), doesn’t agree. They have petitioned FDA to have 4-MI banned.

 How do the risks associated with certain chemicals in our food stack up against non-food related risks? For the consumer, this question is difficult to answer. In evaluating the risk associated with a chemical, numerous studies are completed. The scientists issue reports and from these reports, numerous interpretations are made, including ones by industry associations, consumer advocacy groups, and government agencies. Then some of these interpretations make their way to the consumer, either through the mass media (TV, newsprint) or through social media (websites, blogs). 

The studies that are conducted to determine risk are rarely perfect. Animal models, where large quantities are injected into small animals such as rats, are often used for toxicity determinations. With these, there is always a question of how realistic it is when compared to humans and their normal living conditions. When large scale human surveys are used to determine risk, it is often difficult to control all of the variables including what people eat, their daily habits, and their genetic makeup. In the end, we hope that conclusions that are drawn are done are unbiased and done in the best interest of the public.

 Public opinion polls have been done that show that that is an increasing concern in the consumers’ perception of food hazards. The apparent lack of trust on these technical risk assessments and this can be linked to a number of factors. One is the stories that are reported in the news media and how they are reported. In addition to television and print news, many people now use the internet for their information. On the internet, we see the whole gamut of information, from the scientific studies themselves to the totally unscientific opinion pieces. 

One of the primary fears that people have is cancer. Certainly past tragedies provide an underpinning for the public’s concern. Asbestos and tobacco are two examples of cancer related items that have received a high level of media coverage and have led to people being skeptical. So when a linkage is made between a chemical in food and cancer in the news or the media, it will get attention. The question of the level of risk, however, is often more difficult to discern. 

How should one respond? First, consumers should inform themselves as best they can by using valid sources of information. It is also important to understand the bias of those providing the information, and try to obtain a balance in what is read. Remember that the information out there is rarely clear cut, so it is important for consumers to make a determination where they feel comfortable.


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