Clean label cull: French supermarket cuts 90 'controversial' substances from private label products

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French supermarket Super U has pledged to remove or reduce 90 “controversial” substances from its private label range, including palm oil, aspartame, monosodium glutamate, bisphenol A and fructose-glucose syrup, citing consumer fears and the cocktail effect. But is there any scientific basis behind its decision?

The list includes 26 pesticides, the 'Southampton Six' food colours - which many European food manufacturers have also voluntarily phased out - and titanium dioxide.

Super U said its decision was triggered by consumer fears. "These concerns [over chemicals] are amplified by television, print media and some scientific discussions but also by a lack of information. Consumers, rightly or wrongly, come to conclusions on the toxicity of these substances. These concerns are directly relayed back to us in our stores and through inquiries about our products.

"Aware of these fears and of consumer expectations for more simplified products, we have decided not to take refuge behind the regulations. We considered that going beyond this by eliminating these controversial substances, was part of our mission towards our customers.”

To see the full list of substances, click here.

The retailer said it chose the substances according to several factors, including the fact that threshold levels cannot be considered as “an absolute rule” or the cocktail effect - the cumulative effect of many chemicals in the body even though individually they may be safe.

The chemical cocktail effect

Professor of molecular toxicology at the Technical University of Denmark's National Food Institute Anne Marie Vinggaard told FoodNavigator she could not perform an in-depth analysis of all 90 substances, but noted that the list contained many pesticides, phthalates, bisphenols and parabens, among others. "These belong to the substances that are of concern as many of them are known to induce cocktail effects.”

“We are concerned that humans are not adequately protected from the combined exposure to many chemicals that arises from many different sources such as foods,

consumer products, dust and food packaging. Especially exposure of the unborn foetus is of concern.  

“It is generally not food additives that are of highest concern as these substances generally have been thoroughly tested. Rather it is contaminants (non-intentionally added chemicals) in our foods and chemicals from the other mentioned sources that are of highest concern.”

In general risk assessments performed by agencies such as EFSA are for individual substances one by on. "Only in a few cases [are] cocktail effects taken into account. This needs to be changed in the future."

Vannegaard also questioned Super U’s depiction of the 90 substances as scary cartoon characters for its campaign, saying they look scary. "I would prefer a more sober campaign," she said, adding: “I would give the supermarket the advice to team up with experts and get their input for their campaign.” 

'Encouraging'

Food industry watchdog and consumer interest group, Foodwatch, gave measured praise for Super U's initiative. “It is clear that there is still a lot to be done and not all the measures already many proposals. But the signal Super U statutory takes measures for the health of its customers and the environment is encouraging.”

But Foodwatch questioned the retailer's action in some cases, for instance, by replacing isoglucose (also known as high fructose corn syrup or fructose-glucose syrup) with sugar rather than aiming to reduce sugar content.

Meanwhile it added that the presence of glyphosate on Super U's list referred to the fact that the consumer-facing weedkiller Roundup would no longer be sold in its stores, rather than traces of the agricultural herbicide in food.

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