Last week, Subway announced that it was in the process of removing the chemical known as Azodicarbonamide (ADA) from its sandwich breads after a petition started by Vani Hari, a prominent food blogger known as Food Babe, was signed by over 50,000 people.
“We are already in the process of removing Azodicarbonamide as part of our bread improvement efforts despite the fact that it is an FDA approved ingredient,” the company said in a statement. “The complete conversion to have this product out of the bread will be done soon.”
Vani Hari spurred outrage among her followers by pointing out that Subway’s baking additive ADA is also used in yoga mats and shoe rubber. She writes:
Azodicarbonamide is the same chemical used to make yoga mats, shoe soles, and other rubbery objects. It’s not supposed to be food or even eaten for that matter. And it’s definitely not “fresh”.
Hari’s petition called 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.”
All of this, of course, is utter nonsense. Although Hari’s message is clear, her facts are muddled and border on pseudoscience. For one thing, many foods and non-foods share ingredients, and simply because something found in food can also be found in non-food items (like antifreeze, microchips, or dog food) has nothing to do with the ingredients safety.
Furthermore, Hari’s don’t-eat-what-you-can’t pronounce may have a populist appeal, but it has little to do with science. Words have no inherent, independent meaning. And those following this advice should think twice about taking multivitamins, which contain scary-sounding compounds like “dibasic calcium phosphate” (calcium) and “dl-Alpha tocopherol acetate” (vitamin E). Then there’s dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO), whose dangers are well documented. DHMO is a highly reactive hydroxyl radical, and is a constituent of many known toxic substances, diseases and disease-causing agents. Despite these dangers, DHMO is widely available around the world and is only lightly regulated. Why haven’t you heard about DHMO? Well, you have. But you likely recognize it by a different name: H2O, or water.
To support her claim that Subway should cease using ADA in their bread, Hari points to these “alarming facts.” First, Hari notes that “The World Health Organization has linked it to respiratory issues, allergies and asthma” and further that “The U.K Health And Safety Executive has recognized azodicarbonamide as a potential cause of asthma.” Here is what the WHO actually says:
Case reports and epidemiological studies in humans have produced abundant evidence that azodicarbonamide can induce asthma, other respiratory symptoms, and skin sensitization in exposed workers.
Did you catch that? The WHO warns that ADA, which is used as a blowing agent, can induce asthma in exposed workers – people working in factories where ADA is manufactured or used. So, if you have asthma and work in a plant that uses ADA as a blowing agent or manufactures it, minimize your exposure to it and try not to breathe it in. It should be obvious, however, that that has absolutely no relevance for the risks of ADA’s use in making bread, or in any other food product.
Second, Hari recounted a 2001 accident involving a truck carrying ADA:
When a truck carrying azodicarbonamide overturned on a Chicago highway in 2001, it prompted city officials to issue the highest hazardous materials alert and evacuate people within a half mile radius! Many of the people on the scene complained of burning eyes and skin irritation as a result.
The effects described above are consistent with the health risks recognized by the WHO, so they aren’t that surprising. But there is, however, a fundamental difference between being exposed to a large amount of the pure chemical, and the tiny amount of it that exists in food. The same caution would be appropriate for a spill of any other concentrated pure chemical.
Third, Hari noted that “When azodicarbonamide is heated, there are studies that show it is linked to tumor development and cancer.” Here, Hari is expressing concern about semicarbazide (SEM), which is a byproduct of azodicarbonamide. However, the European Food Safety Authority has stated “that the risk, if any, from consumption of foods containing SEM is judged to be very small, not only for adult consumers but also for infants” and that “the issue of carcinogenicity is not of concern for human health at the concentrations of SEM encountered in food.” In other words, Hari is incorrect and the evidence shows that ADA and SEM, at the levels consumed in food, pose no human health risk. As of February 24, 2014, SEM is listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as “not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity in humans.” SEM does not appear on California’s Proposition 65 list of “Chemicals Known to the State to Cause Cancer or Reproductive Toxicity.” And the National Toxicology Program’s “12th Report on Carcinogens” does not list SEM either as a “Known Human Carcinogen” or a “Reasonably Anticipated Human Carcinogen.”
Fourth, Hari attempts to characterize the FDA’s approval of ADA as out-of-step with the rest of the world, which, presumably in her view, have responded appropriately to the dangers posed by ADA. She writes: “Not only is this ingredient banned in Europe and Australia, but you also get fined 450,000 dollars if you get caught using it in Singapore and can serve 15 years in prison.”
But if you read her own references, specifically in the U.K. report, you find this:
On the basis that azodicarbonamide is a human asthmagen and that the concentrations required to induce asthma in a non-sensitive individual or to provoke a response in a sensitive individual are unknown, it is concluded that there is a risk to human health under present occupational exposure conditions. The level of risk is uncertain; hence, exposure levels should be reduced as much as possible.
Here again, a distinction is made between the dangers of pure ADA in manufacturing and the innocuous amount of it in food. ADA is banned in Europe and Australia because of the risk of exposed workers directly to the pure gas, not based on any risk in food.
The fact of the matter is that Hari’s campaign against ADA is a prime example of what’s known as the “naturalistic fallacy,” the notion that what is natural is by definition good or healthy, and what is unnatural is by definition bad and unhealthy. This is a tactic that has been employed by pseudoscientists for decades, and it is reminiscent of the 2012 scare over pink slime.
This is not to say that Vani Hari is necessarily wrong. It is possible that the FDA designation of ADA as safe is misguided. But Hari’s Subway-gambit has much less to do with her ability to “find and expose the truth” (as she claims is her goal) than her ability to generate publicity through sensationalism and scare mongering.
Subway is now caving to the petition, and it is difficult to blame them. They need to pay attention to their bottom line. But ultimately, the debate over azodicarbonamide (or GMOs or anything else) should rest on the science of food safety. As concerned citizens, we should reject “social activists” who rely on the psychology of disgust or fear mongering to influence public policy. The success of this most recent campaign, however, demonstrates how difficult that sometimes is.
Featured Image Credit: Dwight Burdette / Wikimedia Commons