Activism Changes Subway's Bread: Is It Really Dangerous?

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The health-conscious fast-food sandwich chain Subway has agreed to remove a chemical used in its bread following a prominent food blogger’s petition.

Vani Hari, who blogs as the Food Babe, is a health food activist who spurred outrage among her followers by pointing out that Subway’s baking additive azodicarbonamide is also used in yoga mats and shoe rubber.

Her petition, signed by over 50,000 people so far, calls the chemical a "dangerous ingredient" and ends with, "North Americans deserve to truly eat fresh -- not yoga mats." Added Hari, "When you look at the ingredients, if you can’t spell it or pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it."

Yuck! Who wants to eat yoga mats? But is that really what's in Subway bread?

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An article in the Huffington Post noted that “Hari’s petition mentions that exposure to it could be linked to asthma, respiratory problems, cancer and skin irritation. But those of you who bought a $5 foot-long Subway sandwich for lunch probably don’t need to worry."

According to a 1999 World Health Organization evaluation of studies on the effects of azodicarbonamide, there was a negligible impact from the chemical in animal test subjects, except in massive doses. All information regarding human testing was inconclusive. The ingredient is widely used throughout the food industry, including by Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, and many other chains.

Azodicarbonamide is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which classifies it as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) when used as a dough conditioner or bleaching agent in flour. The GRAS designation is very common and applies to most foods we eat.

Thus it's safe -- or at least no less safe than other foods. Of course no food is completely safe; all foods carry some inherent risk, whether it's the risk of food-borne pathogens, the risk of mercury in seafood, or even allergic reaction. Even water can kill you if you drink too much of it.

The Food Babe website makes no mention of Hari's educational background in nutrition, medicine, chemistry, or anything else related to health or food. Instead she is a blogger activist whose "success in her writing and investigative work can be seen in the way food companies react to her uncanny ability to find and expose the truth."

However, Hari's success in having azodicarbonamide removed from Subway's menu has less to do with her ability to "find and expose the truth" than it does her media-savvy ability to use scary sensationalism to fill her e-petition.

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The Ick Factor

The Investigations page on Hari’s Food Babe website is littered with alarmist click-bait titles like “Are You Eating This Ingredient Banned All Over the World?” and “Why Chewing Gum Destroys Your Health” and, perhaps most memorably, “Do You Eat Beaver Butt?”

Hari is smart enough to know that simply offering a carefully-written, science-based article was not going to generate the publicity she sought. Instead Hari launched the petition and circulated a photo of herself outside a Subway sandwich shop with a rolled yoga mat displayed prominently under one arm. Who needs statistics and peer-reviewed journal studies when you’ve got a bright blue yoga mat associated with food?

The photo's message is clear, but her facts are muddled. Hari's campaign, however well intentioned, employs dubious logic bordering on pseudoscience: Many foods and non-foods share the same ingredients, and just because something found in food can also be found in antifreeze, microchips, or dog food doesn't mean it's unsafe at all. Hari's campaign has roots in what's known as a "naturalistic fallacy," suggesting that because something is natural, it is by definition good or healthy.

The battle over azodicarbonamide is reminiscent of the 2012 scare over boneless lean beef trimmings, or as it was better known at the time, pink slime. Then there’s Jell-O brand gelatin, a favorite dessert since 1897. You can call it Jell-O, or you can call it flavored and colored powdered cow bones, cartilage, and intestines. Gelatin is made from collagen, an animal tissue (which is why many strict vegans refuse to eat it). Feeding ground-up cow meat (or “pink slime”) to children is a disgusting outrage, but feeding ground-up cow bones to kids is a delicious treat on a hot summer day.

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Don't Eat What You Can't Say?

Hari's don't-eat-what-you-can't pronounce rule of thumb has a populist, simplistic appeal, but is actually a very poor guide to healthy eating.

One of the characteristics of language is that words have no inherent, independent meanings. The letters or sounds of the word "car" or "cartoon," for example, are not designated by some correspondence to reality; "hat" and "hate" are not related semantically or linguistically, despite having only one letter of difference. In the same way, a word's length or ease of pronunciation has no bearing at all on whether it is good, healthy, or even edible. E. coli ("e-coal-eye") is easy to pronounce, completely natural and potentially deadly.

Those following Hari's advice better throw out those daily multivitamins, packed with scary-sounding (and presumably unnatural) compounds like "dibasic calcium phosphate," (calcium, also used in toothpaste -- yuck!); "dl-Alpha tocopherol acetate" (vitamin E, also used in cosmetics -- gross!); and "hydroxypropyl methylcellulose" (used in pills as a binder, and also in construction tile adhesives -- ick!).

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Then there's "pyridoxine hydrochloride," "polyethlyine glycol" and "cyanocobalamin," which sounds especially scary since it has the prefix "cyan," as in the lethal poison cyanide! (It may be healthier if you just call it vitamin B12). As for the potential dangers of dihydrogen monoxide, they are well documented, though the compound is widely available around the world.

This is not to say that the Food Babe is necessarily wrong; it's possible that azodicarbonamide is indeed as dangerous as she claims, and that its FDA designation as safe is misguided. But her success in getting it removed has little to do with science, data or real evidence.

Scare mongering -- with or without evidence to back it up -- is often an effective technique in social activism, and many corporations would rather just give in and remove the ingredient instead of dealing with an ongoing public relations battle with the Food Babe or anyone else.

Ultimately, the debate about azodicarbonamide or any other food additive should rest on the science of food safety instead of the psychology of disgust or fear mongering.