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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