Yoga Mats, Subway, and the Azodicarbonamide Controversy: Chemical Phobia In the Media Age

Readers, an intriguing event happened in the world of fear-based media over the past two weeks. Subway, the sandwich chain, caved to a food blogger, Food Babe, who demanded that the chain eliminate azodicarbonamide from its bread products. How did she manage to do it? In part by pointing out that azodicarbonamide, which Subway uses as a dough oxidizer, is also an ingredient used in making plastic yoga mats.

You read that right: yoga mats.

This isn't the first time Food Babe criticized Subway, but it's the first time she got serious traction doing so. Back in 2012, she wrote Is Subway Real Food?, a discouragingly unscientific critique of the preservatives and food additives Subway uses to prevent food spoilage. Then, in late 2013, she wrote her first post about azodicarbonamide where she appears to confuse industrial-scale use of the compound with food-grade uses. However, it wasn't until she created her Subway petition two weeks ago, with the exquisite slogan we want to really eat fresh, not yoga mat--that this issue caught fire.

Let's set aside for the moment the phobia that drives otherwise reasonably intelligent people to fear any chemical with more than four syllables. Instead, let's ask: is this controversy on azodicarbonamide a real controversy?

Unfortunately, this is the wrong question. If enough people think a controversy is real, it becomes real.

Subway must protect its brand, so it will replace the ingredient to avoid losing business. Simple. Management just had to decide at what point the issue became serious enough to justify the change. Whether azodicarbonamide is safe or not is irrelevant.

Of course there's another issue here: why would a food blogger who would fit right in with early 1900's muckrakers, who fancies herself the leader of an army, and who even implausibly takes credit for Chik-fil-A's decision to go antibiotic-free engage in a passive-aggressive attempt to tell a company how to bake bread?

Don't get me wrong: Vani The Food Babe seems like a lovely person. She may use hyperbole and a lot of exclamation points, but she clearly cares deeply about what's in our food. And admittedly, the yoga mat idea is utter genius. That said, however, if you carefully analyze the rhetoric she uses--and the logic she doesn't--it is impossible to distinguish her fear-mongering posts from my parody post on the dangers of coffee. Try it. Read her articles on azodicarbonamide and then read A Cup of Morning Death? and see if you can identify any difference in the caliber of argument.

But what this brings us back to is how it is all too easy to worry about all the wrong things. Penn State food science professor John Coupland framed the issue quite well on his blog:

"[F]ood companies are desperate to appeal to consumer demand and as this case shows they can and will change fast. Campaign smartly though. This campaign was successful not because of a serious consideration of risk but because of the jarring incongruity of a compound being in bread and in plastic. Lots of compounds crop up in lots of places and this is a weak argument for deciding which uses are appropriate. It is I suppose possible that there will be a public health benefit from eliminating this ingredient but not much actual evidence."

As with all "chemicals" it's the dose that makes the toxin. Hey, even dihydrogen monoxide* is fatal if inhaled or consumed to excess.

Look, I can't quantify the potential hazards of Subway's 9-Grain Wheat. Nor can people with far more expertise. But I'd guess with a great degree of confidence that I expose myself to much more risk by driving to my local Subway than by eating their bread.

Bottom line: life has never been safer, yet inexplicably, we're more fearful than ever.

Readers, what do you think?

* Otherwise known as water.

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Stuart Carter said...

the so-called "food babe" is an arrogant hack who substitutes volume for knowledge. She is an utter disgrace to the field of journalism. This attack on Subway is exactly in line with her viciously libellous attack on beer.

Melissa said...

Agree with the first comment.

Also, wow. Just wow.

chacha1 said...

You know, I try not to be prescriptive on my blog.

I can with some justification call myself an expert on a couple of things. But only a couple.
Anything else I express an opinion on, should not be taken as gold.

I can't imagine why anyone would read anything on any blog and assume that it is 100% reliably true (though I know millions of people do). It's too easy to fact-check these things. That people are too lazy to fact-check makes me sad.

If a soi-disant food writer has no education in commercial food production, and no ability to comprehend research published by those who have, why should I take her seriously?

Glad I haven't wasted any time reading that one.

botias said...

This sort of fear-mongering makes me sad. Should we remove iron from food because it's also used to make cookware?

Daniel said...

Also, after just a cursory scan of her reader comments, it's literally staggering to see how many people are perfectly happy to give away all their powers of critical thinking.

I feel like we should make my Worry Porn post compulsory reading before you can enter her site.


Janet C. said...

Frankly, I won't even step foot in a Subway store. Something there always smells so bad that I cannot stand to be in the place. Heck, there is a pho restaurant in Reno I won't enter merely because its next door to Subway and I can still smell whatever it is there. And lest you think its just me being crazy, I've engaged in a number of conversations about just this issue, and if its crazy then there are a lot of us out there. So if by some chance this Azodicarbonamide stuff causes the bad smell, then I'm all for getting rid of it. Unfortunately, the general consensus is that its the onions....just something about how the onion smell lingers around when they've been pre-sliced. And onions, of course, are perfectly "natural". So I guess no Subway for me. And as for "food babe": I've never read her blog, but if she attacked beer, well, consider the source:-)