You might not have heard of permeate a few months ago. It’s become a food villain, shunned by consumers. So what drove the vilification and exile of the mysterious milk substance?

After Fairfax revealed the product (a watery dairy byproduct) made up roughly 16% of milk, the media and public furore spawned a plethora of permeate-free milk products.

It’s not the first time permeate has been in the spotlight — Fairfax picked up on the issue in April 2008 — so why the drastic action this time around?

Food and beverage company Lion’s external relations director Libby Hay says while there has been “a level of consumer awareness over time”, the company is merely responding to current consumer demands for “simpler, more authentic and less processed” food.

But is the demonisation of permeate really driven by consumer concerns? Partly, says Choice head of campaigns Matthew Levey, who says there’s been a rise in “what you could call … conscious consumerism”.

“On one level it’s consumers but then it opens up this space for marketers to push other issues which aren’t grounded in evidence,” he said.

Dietitian Rosemary Stanton says food vilification is merely a routine marketing ploy used to sell new products.

“Whole food groups … and whole food categories get demonised … these things don’t just pop up in the media by themselves. They usually pop up because somebody’s trying to market something else,” she said. “Some people decided to market their milk as permeate free … to make ordinary milk sound horrific. The blogosphere then decided ‘what are they adding to our milk?’ and people started thinking ‘oh, there’s something nasty in milk’.”

Stanton compares the situation to the marketing of hormone-free chicken. “There was a program years ago on television claiming that children were reaching puberty early because of hormones in chicken,” she said. While this was traced back to factory discharge in Mexico, marketers are still using it to sell chicken.

“That led to some clever marketer saying ‘I’ll sell my chicken as hormone free’ … when no chicken in Australia has — now or ever — had added hormones,” she said.

Stanton says such stories are incredibly difficult to dispel. In this case, the dairy industry should have done more to defend itself.

“I think the dairy industry, initially at least, didn’t seem to comment … The dairy industry should have spoken up and told people a few more facts. A bit more transparency would always help,” she said. “You need people to speak up about things otherwise you end up getting this sort of crazy reaction to something that doesn’t really matter two hoots.”

RMIT senior lecturer in dairy science Dr Frank Sherkat says there needs to be greater regulation of product labelling. “There should be a very strict rule on labelling by government agencies … and those companies who promote their products on the basis of permeate free, they should be held accountable,” he said.

But with Pura, Rev, Pauls and Aussie Farmers Direct all marketing permeate-free lines — and Woolworths and Coles about to join the party — it looks like the marketing machine has won this round.

Peter Fray

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