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Is banning “artificial” ingredients based on fear or science?

Since the late 1980s, individuals and organizations have been trying to warn the public about a deadly chemical known as dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO).

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Since the late 1980s, individuals and organizations have been trying to warn the public about a deadly chemical known as dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO). Though widely used in the home and in commercial settings, including the health-care industry, this substance has been shown to cause severe lung damage and even death when inhaled in small quantities. Hundreds of thousands of people die annually from this cause.1

DHMO also can produce electrolyte disturbances and potentially fatal neurologic symptoms when taken orally, and it can cause severe burns and even explosions when heated.2 A number of surveys have found high levels of support for banning DHMO, and elected officials in several countries have explored taking such action, although DHMO remains ubiquitous.3,4

Given the obvious dangers of this chemical, why do public health agencies not take action to restrict it? It is possible that funding and political influence from industry impede regulatory action. However, it is more likely that governments have chosen not to ban DHMO because it is essential for life. Most people are surprised to learn this until they recognize the nontechnical name for this chemical—water.

Is “chemical” a dirty word?

The campaign against DHMO has been used as a humorous illustration of the problem of chemophobia or chemonoia. These terms refer to the potent and widespread fear of anything labeled a “chemical.”5–7 Nonscientists often assume chemicals are inherently dangerous, even though the word properly refers to nearly every substance we encounter in daily life—from the deadliest poison to the basic necessities of life and even the materials that make up our own bodies.

A concept integral to chemophobia is the appeal to nature fallacy, the misconception that substances occurring naturally are inherently healthy and safe, while those produced by humans, even if chemically identical to natural substances, are dangerous. Of course, it is easy to find examples that belie this notion. Nothing could be more natural than E. coli or salmonella. Radioactive uranium, asbestos, and cyanide also are completely natural.
In contrast, the vaccines that have eliminated smallpox and polio are undeniably artificial. Antibiotics, synthetic vitamin supplements, blood transfusions, organ transplants, prosthetic limbs, insulin for diabetics, and even such simple and unheralded public health technologies as indoor plumbing and toilet paper have saved lives and reduced suffering for millions. Yet, these are not “natural” in the usual sense of the word.

Unfortunately, chemophobia and the appeal to nature fallacy are widespread, and they often motivate pet-care decisions. As a result, some organizations and individuals offer “natural” products or therapies and warn of the dangers of “chemicals” and anything “artificial.” A recent high-profile example of this exploitation of chemophobia is the announcement by Petco that it “will not sell food and treats containing artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives for dogs and cats.”8

The company calls this decision “a major step forward for pets” on “a momentous day.”8 Petco effectively declares itself the arbiter of what constitutes healthy nutrition, even going so far as offering to “help pet parents affected by such a change to safely transition to a new food or brand that we believe is healthier for their pet” if customers are no longer able to buy a food they have been using.8 Even though regulatory agencies and experts around the world have judged the additives on Petco’s list to be safe, the company has decided it knows better.

Breaking it down

The wording in the Petco press materials may serve the purpose of creating a positive image for the company, but it obscures the danger of a marketing strategy that caters to unscientific reasoning and mostly unfounded fears. There is little in the way of scientific evidence, or even logical consistency, behind the Petco blacklist.9

For example, many of the “artificial” flavors and preservatives on the list occur naturally (see Table 1). Of course, the fact these chemicals occur in nature doesn’t make them safe, just as flavors and preservatives are not necessarily unsafe if produced synthetically. However, the fact Petco is banning naturally occurring substances for being “artificial” exposes the inconsistent logic behind this blacklist.

The health risks of most substances are related to the dose and route of exposure. And the risk of any substance should always be considered in relation to its benefits. Water is unsafe to drink only in very large quantities, but it is unsafe to breathe in even small amounts. It is also essential for life, taken at appropriate doses and by the appropriate route. The same logic, informed by scientific evidence concerning risks and benefits, should be applied to food additives.

Some of the substances on Petco’s list have no clear health implications. The color additives, for example, are almost certainly safe, but they serve no nutritional or health purpose.10,11,20–25,12–19 These chemicals are added to pet food to appeal to the emotions and aesthetics of pet owners. While they serve no health-related purpose, banning these compounds is itself a way of appealing to the emotions of owners and their fears, and there is no sound reason to believe this will benefit the health of pets.

For other items on the list, the impact of discouraging their use is less clear. Flavorings, for example, make nutritious and affordable commercial foods more palatable. Removing them may make it harder to provide appropriate nutrition to pets, and it may encourage owners to switch to homemade or alternative diets that are often nutritionally inferior.26–31

The most clearly beneficial chemicals on the list are the preservatives. Preventing spoilage, pathogen growth, and loss of nutrients in pet food is critical to providing healthy diets. In the absence of convincing evidence that commonly used and legally approved preservatives are actually harmful, removing them can lead to less safe and healthy food for pets.

The evidence of health risks for most of the additives on the list is weak and based primarily on in vitro and lab animal studies that do not reliably predict the effects of normal use in pet foods. Most of these additives have been used for decades and reviewed periodically by regulators with no convincing evidence of negative health effects in humans or pets. Some may have risks that warrant removing them from use, but the evidence to make this case is lacking.

One can, of course, argue that any substance showing any hint of toxicity in lab animal studies ought to be avoided. There is little evidence, however, this precautionary approach actually reduces harm. If the substances that are abandoned are safe, there is no benefit. And there is always the potential that new, less thoroughly tested alternatives may have greater risks, even if they are “natural.”32

There is even evidence some of the additives on the Petco list may actually have health benefits (see references from Table 1). Many have antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antineoplastic, and antioxidant activity or other potentially beneficial uses. While the evidence for these effects is weak and based mostly on in vitro and lab animal studies, this is no less convincing than the evidence for negative health effects being used to justify banning these compounds.

Unscientific reasoning is not likely to lead to good health-care choices. Unjustified fear of grains has led to grain-free diets making up about 25 percent of the dog food market. There is no reason to believe these diets have health benefits, and there are beginning to be signs they may be harming dogs.33–35 The same reasoning that underlies Petco’s stance on artificial ingredients also has led it to sell raw diets, which have well-established health risks,28,36–42 and to offer homeopathic remedies43–47 pet owners may mistakenly substitute for effective, science-based medical treatment.

Risk-benefit analysis

The best way to protect pets’ health is to rely on sound scientific evidence to help us weigh the risks and benefits of the food and medicine we provide, not to cater to fears like chemophobia and meaningless distinctions such as “natural” and “artificial.” Table 1 provides a partial list of the sources, regulatory approvals, and evidence for safety and potentially beneficial effects of the items on the Petco blacklist. This is not a comprehensive review, simply an illustration that the items on this list are often “natural,” are judged by government experts around the world to be safe as used in food for humans and animals, and may have beneficial uses offsetting any risk they may present.

Veterinarians have a responsibility to support and educate pet owners and to challenge unscientific, fear-based marketing ploys. The movement toward dangerous “natural” practices like feeding raw diets and avoiding vaccination is a real threat to animal welfare, and it is exacerbated by companies, regardless of industry, seeking market advantage through capitalizing on misconceptions and fear.

 

Brennen McKenzie, MA, MSc, VMD, cVMA, discovered evidence-based veterinary medicine after attending the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and working as a small animal general practice veterinarian. He has served as president of the Evidence-Based Veterinary Medicine Association and reaches out to the public through his SkeptVet blog, the Science-Based Medicine blog, and more. He is certified in medical acupuncture for veterinarians. Dr. McKenzie’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News and are strictly those of the author.

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One thought on “Is banning “artificial” ingredients based on fear or science?

  1. I don’t believe I’ve ever sited that many references thru the totality of my college career. Good information but how do you argue with a client whose response is, “I just KNOW!”?

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