This post by Olga Khazan at Atlantic.com highlights some recent food company decisions to remove ingredients of concern to certain consumers. Yet, the best science we have available suggests these same ingredients are perfectly safe.
Examples mentioned in the story include announcements that Diet Pepsi is removing aspartame, Ben and Jerry's and Chipotle are removing GMOs (the former company's decision is a bit ironic given that they're essentially selling frozen fat with sugar; the later is duplicitous since they're still selling sodas and cheese that will contain GMOs), Pepsi dropping high fructose corn syrup in some of their drinks, and Clif's Luna Bars going gluten-free. To that we could add a long list of others such as Cheerios dropping GMOs, many milk brands years ago dropping rBST, etc.
It's difficult to know what to make of these moves. On the one hand, we ought to champion consumer freedom and sovereignty. Whatever one might think about the "power" of Big Food, these examples clearly show food companies willing to bend over backwards to meet customer demands. That, in principle, is a good thing.
The darker side of the story is that many consumers have beliefs about food ingredients that don't comport with the best scientific information we have available. As a result, food companies are making a variety of cost-increasing changes that only convey perceived (but not real) health benefits to consumers.
The longer-run potential problem for food companies is that they may inadvertently be fostering a climate of distrust. Rather than creatively defending use of ingredient X and taking the opportunity to talk about the science, their moves come across as an admission of some sort of guilt: Oh, you caught us! You found out we use X. Now, we'll now remove it. All the while, we'll donate millions to causes that promote X or prevent labeling of X, while offering brands that promote the absence of X. It's little wonder people get confused, lose trust, and question integrity.
I'm not sure there is an easy answer to this conundrum. In a competitive environment, I'm not sure I'd expect (or shareholders would expect) one food company to try to make a principled stand for ingredient X while their competitor is stealing market share by advertising "no-X". On the other hand, I'd like consumers to make more informed decisions, but I'm not all that sure "education" has much impact or that, at least for many middle- to upper-income consumers, that given the price of food they have much economic incentive to adjust their prior beliefs.
Faced with the conundrum, I suspect some people would advocate for some sort of policy (i.e., ban ingredient X or prevent claims like "no-X"), but I don't think that's the right answer. Despite my frustration, I suspect the marketplace will work it out in a messy way. Some companies will adopt "no-X", will incur higher costs than their consumers are willing to pay, and will go out of business or go back to X. Some companies that are seen as lacking integrity will lose market share. Some consumers will pay more for "no-X" only later to find out it wasn't worth it, and switch back. Maybe the scientists wind up being wrong and some consumers avoided X for good reason, and all companies drop X. The feature of the marketplace, dynamism, that is, at times, frustrating is also the key to ultimately solving some of those same frustrations.