A Bittersweet Reminder About How Confusing Food Regulation Can Be

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A Bittersweet Reminder About How Confusing Food Regulation Can Be

A big media dust-up involving San Diego-based Senomyx drives home how little most consumers know about a whole host of ingredients that make their way into our food.

As soda sales continue to decline, and concerns mount that too much sugar may be more harmful than we realized, it’s no wonder that America’s beverage giants are scrambling to find alternatives that will help keep the sweet stuff flowing.

One alluring option may come from San Diego-based Senomyx.

The company has developed a sweetener enhancer called Sweetmyx, that it says “will enable the creation of lower-calorie beverages and foods that have reduced sweeteners without sacrificing taste.”  In other words, Sweetmyx isn’t a sweetner by itself, but is supposed to restore sweetness levels in food and beverages where sucrose or fructose (think cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup) has been cut back.

Clare Leschin-Hoar LogoIt’s got potential, which is why PepsiCo nabbed the exclusive worldwide rights to Sweetmyx for non-alcoholic beverages.

But earlier this month Senomyx suddenly found itself in a sour situation when reporters trumpeted the news that the company’s hot new sweetener enhancer had been given the nod by the FDA to proceed. Unfortunately for Senomyx, when it comes to GRAS determinations and the FDA, nuances count.

GRAS stands for Generally Recognized as Safe. It’s an FDA designation given to chemicals or ingredients that are added to processed food. But the FDA doesn’t actually determine GRAS (more on that in a moment), and the wording of Senomyx’ original announcement touting the GRAS determination of Sweetmyx ensured plenty of reporters got the details wrong.

Michele Simon, a public health lawyer, and Politico’s Helena Bottemiller both tracked the gaffes.

“Among the most confused media outlets was Reuters, which ran the headline ‘FDA says Senomyx sweetener enhancer safe; shares jump.’ (Reuters later corrected itself.) Barrons ran the incorrect subhead ‘The biotech received a nod from the FDA for the sweetener Sweetmyx.’ Bloomberg also got the story wrong and later ran an obscure correction,” Simon wrote.

And in a surprising move, the FDA itself sent out a stern public statement making it very clear the agency had not made the GRAS determination, nor had they been notified by Senomyx. The GRAS determination was made by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association.

Senomyx blamed the media: “The press release was accurate, however one of the statements in the release was misinterpreted by some members of the media,” it wrote in a lengthy post on the company website clarifying the original press release.

Senomyx declined our request for an interview.

Simon points out that the error in wording may have given the company’s stock a bump, noting that the website Motley Fool deemed Senomyx as one of its “3 best stocks” that day, and scolds Senomyx and Pepsi for making inaccurate statements about the legal status of their own ingredients. (Senomyx’s stock price subsequently fell after the company corrected itself.)

Whether you’ll be drinking a Pepsi product enhanced by Sweetmyx anytime soon remains to be seen.

“Large companies, such as PepsiCo, are typically conservative when implementing changes to their branded products and may not begin or expand their use of Senomyx flavor ingredients when expected or at all,” says the company.

But there’s another part of this story that’s worth noting. If reporters don’t always understand how that GRAS sausage is made, it’s highly unlikely everyday consumers are going to understand it either, and might explain why there’s a call among industry experts, including the Government Accountability Office, to fix the GRAS process.

Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, nails it in her post on the blow-up. She outlines the “shocking gap in FDA regulatory authority over GRAS determinations:

• Manufacturers get to decide whether food additives are safe or not.

• Manufacturers get to decide whether to bother to tell the FDA the additives are in the food supply, and even if they do.

• Manufacturers get to decide who sits on the panels that review the evidence for safety.”

Others agree with her, including the Center for Food Safety which filed a lawsuit against the FDA in February over what it says is a GRAS “fast track” for food manufacturers, and points to the FDA’s failure to regulate food additives.

While it’s very likely Senomyx (which is also working on similar solution for salt reduction) didn’t purposely mislead with its announcement of GRAS approval, the whole dust-up is a poignant reminder to eaters on how a whole host of ingredients make their way into our food.

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