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Why I'm Not Worried About Yoga Mat Chemicals in My Food

Several fast food chains are scrambling to reformulate their bread recipes following a consumer protest. But will this really make fast food any healthier? Nutrition Diva tackles the chemical controversy.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
February 19, 2014
Episode #272

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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.

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The online petition that started it all 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, or 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.

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