As you've probably heard, Subway, Starbucks, and other national fast food chains are scrambling to remove a chemical called azodicarbonamide from their foods following a consumer protest.
The online petition that started all this was launched by a blogger who makes a living writing and speaking about harmful food additives. She doesn't list any scientific or nutritional training and credentials in her bio. But don't let her apparent lack of expertise put you off. As she says on her website, the fact that she can get food companies to make changes in response to her "investigations" is proof that her charges are valid. But is it really?
Might Doesn't Always Equal Right
It's certainly proof of the power that we consumers wield. Companies will bow to our demands, no matter how irrational. Once we've gotten our teeth into the idea that something is harmful, whether it's GMOs, corn syrup, or azodicarbonamide, it is often cheaper for companies to give us what we want than to argue about whether it actually makes sense. Sometimes, of course, we're right. But sometimes, we waste all that leverage on things that aren't really worth it.
Please understand: I'm not defending the use of azodicarbonamide or apologizing for food manufacturers. Most of them are more concerned with the health of their balance sheets than the health of their customers.
We absolutely do need to pay attention to what's in our food. We should use our power as consumers to push for safer more wholesome products. (We should also not be surprised when changes we insist on make our food more expensive.) But I think we need to become more discriminating about our causes -- and our sources -- and not be such easy prey for well-intentioned but misguided vigilantes or those seeking primarily to advance their own interests.
Fear of Chemicals
Azodicarbonamide is a chemical compound -- and, for a lot of people, that alone is reason enough to ban it. But obviously just the fact that something is a chemical compound does not make it harmful. Oxygen is a chemical, too.
And it's not as simple as dividing chemicals into natural and synthetic compounds, either. Many synthetic chemicals, such as antibiotics and other life-saving drugs, are true heroes. And many natural chemicals, such as ammonia, can be toxic.
Furthermore, a "toxic" chemical is not necessarily toxic in every context or at every level of exposure. Ingesting too much dihydrogen monoxide can put you into a coma. Inhaling the stuff can kill you. Why aren't we petitioning Subway to remove dihydrogen monoxide from their bread as well? Because this "toxic" chemical is also known as water.
Is There Rubber in Your Sandwich?
One of the ways that this blogger got everyone so excited was to point out that azocarbonamide is also used in the production of foam-rubber yoga mats and sneaker soles. Does this mean that we're eating rubber? Of course not. In fact, we're not even eating azodicarbonamide, because it breaks down into other compounds long before it reaches us. If you stop and think about it, the fact that this food additive has other industrial uses has absolutely no bearing on anything.
Of course, when you can instantly add your name to an online petition, the whole "stopping-and-thinking" process gets a little short-changed.
Why Is This Chemical in Our Food?
Let's try to put the image of that blogger tearing a bite off of her yoga mat out of our minds, set aside our irrational chemophobia, and take more level-headed look at this chemical. Why is it in our food and how much harm is it doing?
Given their slavish attention to the bottom line, food companies generally only use ingredients that serve some sort of purpose. The purpose of adding azodicarbonamide to flour is to enhance gluten formation and make bread doughs rise better. Eliminating this ingredient will probably result in a slightly denser, less "springy" bread. It might also slightly change the color of the bread. Depending on how much you like super-fluffy, super-white bread, these advantages may or may not be that important to you.
How Dangerous is Azodicarbonamide?
So much for the pros. What are the cons? The World Health Organization warns that azocarbonamide as potentially dangerous when inhaled. But this only applies to workers who manufacture or handle large amounts of the raw material. As a food additive, azocarbonamide may only be used in tiny amounts, accounting for no more than .0045 percent of treated flour.
Besides, as I said earlier, you don't actually ingest any azodicarbonamide when you eat bread made with it. During the mixing process, it breaks down into a compound called biurea, a comopund that is readily excreted from the body. Other byproducts include semicarbazide and ethyl carbamate.
Ethyl carbamate used to be used as a medicine until it was discovered that it caused cancer in rats. Although it's not used as an ingredient in foods, it is a natural by-product of yeast fermentation. Accordingly, you'll find trace amounts of ethyl carbamate in almost all wine, beer, whiskey, soy sauce, and breads (whether or not they are made with azodicarbonamide). Ethyl carbamate cannot be completely eliminated from these foods but efforts are being made to limit consumer exposure.
Although there is some concern about the total amount of ethyl carbamate that people might be exposed to from all the different dietary sources, the primary source for most people is alcoholic beverages. Consider it one more reason to enjoy alcohol in moderation or not at all.
But, let's get back to the protest against Subway. It's true that using azocarbonamide as a dough strengthener increases the amount of ethyl carbamate you're getting. But removing it wouldn't completely eliminate your exposure. And here's the real point I want to make:
Removing Azodicarbonamide Doesn't Make Fast Food Healthy
Americans have been eating fast food sandwiches made with azodicarbonamide for years. If you don't eat that stuff very often, I doubt you have anything to worry about. And if you do eat a lot of fast food sandwiches, I'd venture to say that azodicarbonamide is probably the least of your concerns. Take this chemical out of fast food and what do you have left? Food that's still low nutrients and high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats.
If you're really concerned about your health, I suggest skipping the fast food joints altogether and making make more of your food at home, using whole foods. How about we try to eat less white bread and more fruits and vegetables? Let's make our peace with the fact that eating real food sometimes costs more and/or takes more time but is well worth the investment.
But above all, let's not waste our consumer power tilting at windmills and yoga mats. I think our energy and passion would be better spent pushing for meaningful reform of the Farm Bill, for example, or improving school lunch programs and nutrition curricula in our schools.
Follow Monica Reinagel, MS, LDN, CNS on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NutritionDiva