Subway meal

Consider each fact carefully before signing petitions like this one.

A popular petition circulating around the web concerns the chemical azodicarbonamide, an additive used by some fast food chains in their breads. Food blogger Vani Hari — who goes by the title Food Babe on her blog of the same name — recently started a petition to address Subway’s use of azodicarbonamide in its breads.

In her blog, Hari writes about various food products, how they are grown, and what they do for the human body. And in her petition, she claims that the U.S. public has been “duped” because azodicarbonamide does not fall within the definition of “purportedly ‘fresh’ and ‘nutritious’ meals” advertised by the popular fast food chain. She claims that the same chemical used in Subway’s breads is also used in foam and rubber products such as yoga mats and shoe soles.

While it may sound ridiculous that food additives can be used in commercial rubber products, Hari’s claims are supported by documentation from the World Health Organization (cited in her petition) that declares the chemical “is used in the expansion of a wide range of polymers, including polyvinyl chloride, polyolefins, and natural and synthetic rubbers.” When heated, the chemical expands both in rubber compounds and in bread.

Despite her citations, however, her petition is rife with imagery that could cause people to sign it based on gut reaction that chemicals additives are inherently bad. The graphic accompanying the petition shows a tomato and lettuce “wrap,” where a yoga mat stands in for the traditional bread wrap. The graphic also states that azodicarbonamide is “dangerous” and “banned all over the globe because it’s linked to respiratory issues, allergies and asthma.”

This graphic does not represent good science. It appears only to elicit an emotional reaction from its readers.

Although the WHO states that azodicarbonamide is banned as a food additive in European Union member states, its use as a manufacturing product is not necessarily banned in those same areas. As its prime example, the WHO says the U.S. readily produces the substance for import by the U.K., which uses the product in rubber and plastics industries.

Furthermore, the WHO says that respiratory issues are linked to azodicarbonamide due to inhalation of the chemical, not because people are eating it. In fact, the American Association of Cereal Chemists International — a group which specializes in the study of cereal grains — released a paper indicating that azodicarbonamide breaks down into biurea (which is excreted by the body) during the bread-making process. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also lists the chemical under the label Generally Recognized as Safe and limits its use in bread to 0.0045 percent, or 45 parts per million, which is far less than some workers may be exposed to in rubber or plastic manufacturing plants.

Hari certainly makes some good points about the safety of using this chemical in any industry, whether it’s in plastics or foods. But comparing the ingestion of a small amount of it in bread to widespread, daily exposure within a factory setting doesn’t hold up.

As of February 7, she posted on her blog that Subway has agreed to remove the food additive from its breads in U.S. stores. She says, though, that Subway has not provided her with an exact date for its removal. Therefore, she is still encouraging readers to fill out her petition.

We should watch what we eat, and we should pay attention to causes like this one on a case-by-case basis. Without azodicarbonamide, our bread may be a little less white and a little less fluffy. Not all breads are made with the chemical; so, its use is not strictly necessary if you are willing to give up those attributes.

Before signing the petition, make sure to not only look at the facts but also separate one type of fact from another. Don’t get swept away by eye-catching images of yoga wraps. Educate yourself; inform yourself. After that, if you still want to sign, please do.

Image courtesy of Mr. T in DC via Flickr