There are a lot of ways to ask a vendor or manufacturer about what is in their product. I’ve been doing it on and off, with varying degrees of success, for about 6 years. I don’t have it down pat, but I have definitely learned a thing or two about what hasn’t worked for me. It’s not that there’s really a “right'” way to do this: the right way is the way that gets you good information that you can make safe decisions with. But for me, given the style that I related to people in, there are some things that seem not to work well for me and some that seem to work better.
Less Effective: “Is there any corn in this?”
When I was first diagnosed with a corn allergy, my format for asking this question was something like: “Hi there, I am allergic to corn. Is there any corn in your product?”
That worked for me for a little while. I’d ask, and people would say no, and I’d eat the food and be fine. Until the time I asked that of a famous bratwurst company, and they incredulously replied no, there was no corn in their bratwurst, and I believed them. I reacted, and badly. The customer service representative that answered my email apparently was envisioning whole kernels of corn being added to the meat grinder, and given that image, truthfully answered the question. What he did not realize is that their product contained corn dextrose.
Beyond just corn sugars and ingredients directly made from corn, ingredients that are commonly products of fermentation such as citric acid cause terrible reactions for more sensitive corn allergics because they are grown on a medium containing corn sugar. Customer service representatives will not know exactly how these ingredients are made as they are just reading from a script or information sheet.
Less Effective: “Here is the list of corn derivatives. Could your product have come into contact with any of these?”
So I switched my tactic, and started including a link to the corn allergens list, thinking that the person answering my email would take the time to read the massively long list, cross reference it with the ingredients in their product, the incidental ingredients used to pre-treat, sanitize, or preserve the product before processing, the products used on their equipment for processing the food, AND the ingredients of other items in the same facility, and answer my question with any degree of accuracy.
Now that I write that down, it seems like a bit much. Even reading it is a little exhausting- who is actually going to go to that much effort, and if they do, who is actually going to get it right when it isn’t their health at stake? But in my head, it made sense at the time. It worked for a while, until I got a bad answer and reacted.
Less Effective: “I am severely allergic to corn. Is your product safe for me to try?”
So to try to get vendors to take me seriously and put some effort into answering my questions, I played up the gravity of the situation. Except when you do that? You sound like a lawsuit waiting to happen, and no one wants to work with you. They might answer your questions once or twice, but with vague language designed to protect them from any liability should you react, or they might just ignore you.
Try instead: “Can we talk about your product and how it is sourced and manufactured?”
Really, the only way to determine safety of a product is to just find out what it is made from and what happens to it, end to end. This takes a few tries, and by the time you get a good grip on this you know almost as much as the manufacturer about how to make the product. It’s exhausting, but also kind of cool. And yeah, it takes a little time. So in order to make it possible to get this kind of information out of a company, you need to NOT scare them off, not lay a bunch of responsibility on them, and encourage them keep the lines of communication open by being appreciative of the effort they make to help you out.
When you ask about what an ingredient is sourced from or grown on, insist on knowing the EXACT source. If someone says the citric acid is from citrus fruit, ask *which* fruit. If they say the lactic acid is from dairy, ask by what method exactly it is produced/extracted. Most of the time when they end up having to actually call the manufacturing department to get the details, they will end up finding out that actually, the ingredient was grown on corn sugar or otherwise sourced from corn.
Topics to ask about
What questions to ask depends very much on the product in question, however it seems to me that the most common ways for corn to make it into products and NOT be listed on the ingredients label are:
- Sanitizers/disinfectants: citric acid, lactic acid, acetic acid/vinegar, and a number of other antimicrobial agents are all created via fermentation of sugars, which are usually corn sugars.
- Flowing/anti-caking agents: Corn starch is a popular thing to be added to powdered products to keep them from clumping, and they don’t have to list this as an ingredient.
- Packaging: plastics can be made from corn protein, dusted with corn starch to keep them from sticking, or oiled with corn oil for the same purpose.
- Preservation: Glycerin, citric acid, potassium sorbate, and a host of other “natural” chemicals commonly used to prolong the shelf life of a product are commonly derived from corn.
- Vitamin Fortification: Added vitamins will be listed just as the vitamin in the ingredient, but many of them are extracted or fermented from corn, or are shipped from the suppliers suspended in corn oil or corn starch. Notable offenders are Vitamin C/Ascorbic acid, which is almost always from corn, and Vitamin D3/cholecalciferol, which is almost always suspended in corn oil before being added to dairy and nondairy milks.
- Fermentation Products: Any ingredient that is produced via fermentation is likely to be grown on a medium containing corn dextrose or glucose. Examples: Citric acid, lactic acid, malic acid, acetic acid, and vitamin B12. Many other B vitamins are also fermentation products. If you want to know whether an ingredient is likely to be produced via fermentation, often Wikipedia will have an entry on it and mention how it is produced.
For packaging, medications, and other non-food products, it is often helpful to ask for an MSDS (material safety data sheet). Vendors and manufacturers can often supply this and you can find out all the details you want about a product without having to play 20 questions.
Find Your Comfort Zone
It’s hard to find a balance between sharing enough information and too much. People are very different and have very different communication styles. Some prefer a phone call, and some prefer email. Some want to be asked a direct query, and some want an open ended question and the ability to expound at length about their product. Some really wish you would leave them alone and just buy their product or not, and probably shouldn’t be doing customer service tasks in the first place.
Lately, when I contact companies, I avoid giving a lot of background information, or mentioning an allergy at all. If I know enough about how a product is made, I just zero in on the specific things I think are likely to be corny about it and ask about the source/process of those things. If I need more general information because I don’t have a darn clue, I might place a phone call and see if I can talk to someone who’s passionate about the product and wants to tell me all about what it is they do. I don’t know if that really is a more effective method for getting the right information or not, but it makes ME more comfortable during the process, and that is almost as important. All this legwork is pretty exhausting.