Chemicals in My Food

John Coupland is a Professor of Food Science at Penn State. His research program is on the physical properties of foods, in particular fats and oils. He teaches undergraduate Food Chemistry and graduate level Food Chemistry and Food Physical Chemistry. This is about that.

Feb 7

The Food Babe and Sudden Change in our Food system.

Vani Hari writes and speaks about food and nutrition as “The Food Babe”. On Feb 4th she launched a petition calling on Subway restaurants to remove azodicarbonamide from their bread in the US. By February 6th over 70,000 people had signed and Subway had given way and took steps to remove the ingredient.

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This wasn’t a new issue, the Food Babe wrote about azodicarbonamide previously before but those campaigns did not gain traction. This new campaign was based on perceived dishonesty on the part of Subway. “Last week, Michelle Obama, The First Lady of The United States endorsed this company saying every single item on the kid’s menu met the “highest nutrition standards”. This is what broke the camels back.” How a company brands itself has a huge effect on the ingredients they can safely use.

The Food Babe’s argument is framed in terms of the safety of the ingredient but, at best, this point is not well understood. She cites reports of toxicity from azodicarbonamide, but these are associated with its use in plastics manufacturing as a bulk industrial chemical. Low levels of consumed azodicarbonamide appear to be rapidly metabolized and excreted and  have no real toxicological issue. There are more substantial concerns with its thermal degradation to semicarbazide during baking but WHO seems to regard these compounds as more of a concern if azodicarbonamide is used in the foamed plastics of used in the rims of the lids of baby food jars. In any case they describe the risk as “very small” with the possible exception of infants eating a lot of bottled baby food. However, the fact that azodicarbonamide is permitted as food additives in some jurisdictions but not in others is taken as evidence that there is something to be feared here.

In my opinion this wasn’t primarily about toxicology but around the inappropriateness of a compound being used in plastics also being used in foods, particularly by a company that made a big deal of being fresh and healthy. “Azodicarbonamide is the same chemical used to make yoga mats…” captured people’s imagination and drove the campaign.

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There was no effort by Subway to explain or defend their legal use of an approved ingredient; on Feb 6th there was nothing on their website, nothing on their twitter feed. I would love to have been in their headquarters this week but I can only imagine they saw a threat to their “Eat Fresh” brand and acted instantly. I doubt the people in Subway who know about azodicarbonamide in bread were even consulted in that decision. Absolutely no one seemed interested in what azodicarbonamide does in bread or what it might or should be replaced with.

There are things to learn from this case for food companies and for food activists.

Food companies need to be way more open. Additives always have a purpose and regulatory oversight and manufacturers of consumer foods should proactively explain both. If your product needs an antioxidant to have a reasonable shelf life then tell people what you are using, why and provide links to the data showing it’s safe and legal under the conditions used. You might prefer not to talk about the chemicals in your food but it’s certainly better than watching #yogamat trend on your social media stream!

Activists should continue to aggressively campaign for better food systems, food 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. You could have been talking about labeling, food safety, nutritional quality, health halos, advertising practices…

Edit (2/10): CSPI call attention to urethane as a second toxic breakdown product and recommend avoiding the ingredient.

Edit (2/14): I add more on the chemistry of azodicarbonamide here and also revisit my somewhat glib dismissal of its potential risks.


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  3. drricky said: My objection is that it provides credibility to the “Food Babe” brand.
  4. johncoupland posted this