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(Seth Wenig/The Associated Press)
(Seth Wenig/The Associated Press)

Are chemical additives always a bad thing? Add to ...

The Internet rejoiced recently when Subway announced it was removing azodicarbonamide, the so-called “yoga mat” chemical, from the bread it uses to make its sandwiches.

The decision, which came after a petition started by a food blogger that was eventually signed by tens of thousands, is being heralded by many online commenters as a victory against food companies that are continually trying to push artificial ingredients and chemicals down consumers’ throats.

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But does Subway’s decision really represent a win?

The chemicalization of food

Azodicarbonamide is used mainly as an agent in the making of rubber and plastic foam. It’s used as a food additive to bleach bread and help dough rise.

Earlier this month, the woman behind the website Food Babe launched a petition urging Subway to remove the “dangerous plastic chemical” azodicarbonamide from its bread.

The site was also behind the push that eventually spurred Kraft to remove yellow dyes from some Mac & Cheese products sold in Canada and the United States because of fears they may be linked to hyperactivity and other problems.

The site claims azodicarbonamide leads to asthma and might be carcinogenic. According to the site, the chemical, which is used to make yoga mats and shoe rubber, is banned throughout the world because it causes respiratory problems and allergies.

At first glance, this sounds alarming, which explains why 50,000 people signed their names to the petition within 24 hours and took to social media to voice their outrage. Subway responded by announcing it would stop using azodicarbonamide in the U.S. and Canada (it doesn’t use the chemical elsewhere).

But scientific studies suggest there is no real cause for alarm when azodicarbonamide is used as a food additive. The major risks are when azodicarbonamide is used in an industrial setting.

The World Health Organization says azodicarbonamide poses a risk to the workers in plants where the chemical is handled. If inhaled, azodicarbonamide can cause respiratory problems. Countries that have taken action to ban or restrict the use of azodicarbonamide have done so because of the inhalation risks posed to workers handling it.

Only trace amounts of azodicarbonamide are allowed to be added to food.

There is no conclusive evidence showing that consuming food that has azodicarbonamide as an ingredient poses an immediate danger.

That doesn’t mean the risk is zero. But consumers should also be cautious before labelling certain ingredients as “dangerous” simply because they are used in multiple settings and have a name that’s difficult to pronounce, said Dr. Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society.

“I don’t think there’s any issue with azodicarbonamide whatsoever, but these days, it’s sort of in vogue to attack anything that industry uses,” he said. “In all my years of dealing with the public … I would say the biggest misconception I’d have to cite is the idea that if something is natural it’s better and safer than something that’s synthetic.”

Arsenic, he cites as an example, is found in nature and can be deadly to humans.

Schwarcz refers to the increasing demonization of various chemical ingredients as “policy by petition” and says it ignores some of the most significant problems with products sold by major food manufacturers, such as excessive amounts of sugar, salt and fat.

“The amount of sugar that we consume in North America is just astounding,” Schwarcz said. “There’s enough evidence to suggest it’s a major contributor to the caloric excess and therefore to obesity and that’s what we should be paying attention to, not the trivia like azodicarbonamide.”

The bottom line

The trend of consumers paying more attention to the food they’re eating and what goes in it is undoubtedly a good thing. And the food industry could always do a better job at being more accountable and transparent when it comes to ingredient and manufacturing processes.

But the campaign against azodicarbonamide, a chemical that poses risks to workers when used in factories, not when added in minute amounts to food, shows our priorities might be misaligned. After all, the ingredients in most industrial food products that pose the biggest risks are ones we all know how to pronounce: sodium, fat and sugar.

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