The Food Babe Hath Spoken, And Subway Bread Will Still Suck
    By Josh Bloom | March 13th 2014 07:27 PM | 29 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Josh

    Director of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences at The American Council on Science and Health in New York since 2010.

    Former research chemist


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    I would like to nominate Arvind Mahankali to be the next head of the USDA.   Why? He is obviously very smart, has an outstanding work ethic, and a superb vocabulary. He may have even reached puberty. And if he hasn’t, give it a year or so. Arvind is 13. 

    But if you are concerned that he may not yet have what it takes to run an agency with a $24 billion budget and the responsibility of protecting us from unsafe foods, fear not. Last May, Arvind won the 86th National Spelling Bee championship. The word that gave him the championship was knaidel. For fans of irony, a knaidel is a type of Jewish dumpling.   

    Existing on an entirely different astral plane in the spelling universe is Vani Hari, a food activist who runs the website She spearheaded the successful campaign to have Subway remove the chemical azodicarbonamide from its bread.   She may have “won,” but I’m not so sure that her reasoning is all that sound.

    Quoted in an article (written by another genius, but we’ll get to that later) on, she espouses a curious take on toxicity: “When you look at the ingredients [in food], if you can’t spell it or pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it.” 

    Well, there ya go. One hundred years of dietary science has been rewritten in five paragraphs on a website named after a beauty parlor.   

    Vani Hari. If may surprise you to learn this but just because she can't pronounce it, does not make it unhealthy.  Credit and link: FoodBabe

    Ms. Hari is really going to have to restrict her diet, because I doubt she can pronounce, let alone spell any of the following:       

    Cyanocobalamin (Vitamin B12)       
    Tris-(9-octadecenoyl) trigyceryl mixed esters  (Olive oil)       
    4-Hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde (Vanilla)      (2E)-3-phenylprop-2-enal  (Cinnamon)      
    (Vitamin A)  
    (2R,3S,4S,5R,6R)-2-(hydroxymethyl)-6-[(2R,3S,4R,5R,6S)-4,5,6-trihydroxy-2-(hydroxymethyl)oxan-3-yl]oxy-oxane-3,4,5-triol   (Starch)        
    3,7-Dihydro-1,3,7-trimethyl-1H-purine-2,6-dione    (Caffeine)   

    Spelling is not a particular strength of mine, but I can manage this one: D-U-H.   

    But chemistry is, so let’s take a look at the chemical. Azodicarbonamide is a simple cheap chemical, which was first made in 1927. It is used for many things because of exactly one property—when heated it decomposes to a number of gasses, which turn into bubbles and get trapped in the matrix of whatever is being manufactured, giving it a foamy consistency. This is why it is used in bread, yoga mats and hundreds of other things. It is considered to be absolutely safe at low doses.   

    The main knock against it is that is causes asthma—in industrial workers who handle bazillions of pounds of the stuff.  Show me any particulate solid that would not cause asthma if you filled a leaf blower full of it, plugged it in and pointed it at your face all day.   (By the way—it was once considered safe enough to be tested as an anti-HIV medicine, but it didn’t work well enough.)   

    What this has to do with the amount of it in bread (5 mg—the weight of one-quarter of a grain of rice per cup of flour) escapes me. And if it escapes me, one can only imagine the mindset of the anti-scientific idiots that cannot understand the very simple concept of dose. 

    Is the candle at your dinner table the same as the Hindenburg? Is putting some salt on your meatloaf the same as drinking the Dead Sea? Is tripping over one step as bad as falling down Machu Picchu?   

    Yet, that didn’t stop Lindsay Abrahams from doing just this in her recent Salon piece “Subway’s Bread to no Longer Contain Chemical Found in Yoga Mats.”   If she was looking for attention, I’m sure she got it, but the headline is the worst form of scare journalism. It sounds like you are one hoagie away from taking a dirt nap, but is utterly meaningless. 

    Just for yuks, I made up some theoretical headlines of comparable scientific value:   
    “Slinkys Experience No Emotion”      
    “Your Underwear is a Bad Place to Store Hand Grenades"    
    “Carburetors Do Not Have a Spleen”    

    And while we’re at it, let’s take a look at the “since chemical X is found in non-edible product Y you should avoid X” fallacy that Abrahams exploits so masterfully.   This premise is so irrational and absolutely devoid of science or logic that it’s hard to write about. Nonetheless, I shall give it a shot.   

    Nitroglycerine is an important and commonly used heart drug, especially for angina. But it is also the explosive component of dynamite.  You sure you want that in your body?   

    Sodium hydroxide (lye) is the active component in Drano. But it is also found in moistening eye drops. Better get used to having dry eyes.   

    There are four components that make up lethal injections for capital punishment. By far the most plentiful ingredient is water.    

    And Converse All Star sneakers are made with copious amounts of cotton. Does this mean that I shouldn’t eat cotton candy? (OK- that was stupid, but so is much of the rest of this piece.)   

    No- it does NOT matter whether an ingredient in food just happens to be used in yoga mats, billiard balls, or a nuclear submarine. Chemicals are neither good nor bad. They are all different, and to bunch them together (especially based on spelling) is wrong and stupid.   

    Predictably, Subway folded up like a three-dollar lawn chair, and took azodicarbonamide out of its bread. Other companies will no doubt follow. Big deal. The world will be neither better nor worse, nor will the bread. I doubt anyone will even notice the difference.   

    I take that back. The world will be worse.   Because the more decisions that get made based on activist demands and phony science scares, the dumber we get. And we’re getting there pretty fast.  

    Update 3/21/14: Speaking of idiots, I'm looking at one in the mirror. I neglected to point out something so obvious and germane to the piece that I could kick myself. Another reason that azodicarbonamide is nothing to worry about is that after the bread is baked, it is not even there anymore. As I said above, it is used because it decomposes at baking temperatures to give a variety of gasses that give the product in question a spongy texture. So, in reality, people are worried about a chemical that is not only safe, but is gone. Let's have a hearty DUH for me. 

    Front page image: Anokhi Media


    Probably hackneyed but you could have gone with Dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO):
    * is called "hydroxic acid", the substance is the major component of acid rain.
    * contributes to the "greenhouse effect".
    * may cause severe burns.
    * is fatal if inhaled.
    * contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape.
    * accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals.
    * may cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes.
    * has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients.

    Despite the danger, dihydrogen monoxide is often used:

    * as an industrial solvent and coolant.
    * in nuclear power plants.
    * in the production of Styrofoam.
    * as a fire retardant.
    * in many forms of cruel animal research.
    * in the distribution of pesticides. Even after washing, product remains contaminated by this chemical.
    * as an additive in certain "junk-foods" and other food products.


    "This page intentionally left blank." --Gödel
    Josh Bloom
    Thanks. But I purposely avoided dihydrogen monoxide because it has been used to death, and is really more of a trick than an example. And it is not crazy enough for me (a very high bar, indeed)
    Josh Bloom
    Look, I actually agree with you, but your combative attitude makes me want to argue with you anyway! Good grief. What people need is to think about their food choices, and her scare tactics aren't good for that, but neither is your meanness. She does have a good point that good bread doesn't need such artificial help, and it is better for people to eat real food than ones full of artificial helpers like this. I just wish people had more of a focus on helping to educate people rather than scare or berate them.

    Josh Bloom
    I think we have a different idea of what this piece was supposed to be. It was not an attempt to engage in a serious discussion about chemical toxicology. The Salon scare piece took that off the table.
    This was simply satire, which I guess can be mean at times. And something funny. With a bit of derision. Maybe I just needed to vent. 

    I'm actually a pretty good guy, and my mother loves me. 
    Josh Bloom
    So does your brother.

    After I heard about this harmful chemical, I went straight to my kitchen and threw it out, vowing never to use it in my bread again. Oh wait, I've never put it in my bread. Nor has any self respecting chef. So, why the hell did Subway need it?

    Your point is well taken that small doses are harmless. But you miss the point that if you do not need to put preservatives and chemicals that really don't belong in foods, then maybe you shouldn't. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Soon enough you have a dozen trace chemicals.

    Josh Bloom
    I almost completely agree with you. The chemical makes the bread more chewy. Do we need it? No way. Does it do any harm? You can never make an absolute statement saying something doesn't, but in this case the chance of harm is miniscule at worst. I guess they put it in because someone decided consumers want chewier bread. Will this make any difference one way or the other in terms of mankind? I sure doubt it.
    The one comment I do have is about your dozen trace chemicals. The number is really in the 10s of thousands—many of which come from food itself.  And with very few exceptions, traces of everyday chemicals are metabolized and excreted, so they don't build up in your body. This is what our livers are exquisitely designed to do. They chew up drugs, chemicals, nutrients etc. and use or discard them. This is why, despite silly stories like this, we are not being poisoned en masse. Lifespan goes up every year. I don't see how this could be possible if we were really being bathed in toxins.
    Josh Bloom
    Your point about lifespan going up every single year is the exact thing I say to every knucklehead who thinks chemical X or food Y is about to kill them. And when I say it, their comeback is almost always.....a blank stare. Because if we're truly contaminating our precious, defenseless bodies with a sea of toxic chemicals every day, how on earth are we living longer? Today, the average American lives to about 77. Fifty years ago, it was 68. One hundred years ago, when there were far fewer evil chemicals around, it was 52! Fifty years before that? 42!! People need to stop believing all the nonsense scare-tactics they hear.

    Josh Bloom
    This sounds exactly like something my brother would say.
    Josh Bloom
    Why? So they can listen to the nonsense of someone that doesn't know the difference between lifespan and life expectancy?

    Lifespan goes up every year.

    After all that, you still repeat such nonsense?

    What makes it so difficult for people to understand the difference between life span and life expectancy? Life span has not increased. The notion that somehow our ancestors had a life span of 30 years is ignorant nonsense.

    Okay, then, genius--call it whatever you like, but explain to me why people are living longer with each passing year. Wouldn't all the terrible chemicals we're ingesting and exposed to suggest exactly the opposite?

    Maybe I can help clarify. Life expectancy is an average. So in 1914 it may have been that 15 percent of population X died before age 2 and 1 percent lived to 100 and in 2014 1 percent of population X dies before age 2 and 3 percent live to 100. As you can see, average life expectancy goes from the mid 40s to the 70s because fewer babies die.

    And that is absolutely due to science/health/medicine.

    As is the extra people living to 100. But our lifespan is not really changing. We are still programmed to die and the business of science and health is to fight nature and keep us alive. There is a reason the older we get the more friends we have that get cancer. If we lived to 150 years old the cancer rates would probably be 85 percent. We can't cure cancer, it is nature's way of saying 'get the hint'.
    That illustrates your misunderstanding. It isn't a matter of calling it whatever I like. It's a matter of seeing that people have been living into their 80's and 90's well before the 20th century. So to claim that lifespan is increasing is simply wrong at every level of interpretation.

    As for the chemicals? ... well surely you aren't that naive. Your argument is based on your own bias and agenda and is simply supposition. Since you've offered no numbers nor evidence, I assume that you don't actually have any idea of how many people die, or are affected by chemicals of any type. It's simply an agenda you're willing to promote without any information.

    Basically there are also many terrible chemicals and they've already been documented to produce terrible harm. So, it is simply foolish to suggest that no such thing has ever occurred nor that it does occur.

    Josh Bloom
    You've missed the entire point of my piece. 
    I never said that chemicals are not harmful. I spent 27 years "playing" with them and developed quite a respect for the ones that are. Some are. Some aren't. YOU do not know the difference. I do.

    And the idea of a celebrity making toxicology judgements based on spelling is idiotic on any level. She has no idea what she is talking about, yet people listen because she is a minor celebrity. 

    Finally, (and you cannot be expected to know this) the reason I'm unconcerned with azodicarbonamide is actually hinted at in the essay. It's because by the time you bake it it isn't even there anymore. It decomposes to give a few different gasses, which is why it is used in the first place.

    So, it's not only safe at low levels, it's not even there anymore by the time you eat the bread. 

    I'm not an epidemiologist. I simply pointed out that if there was a mass poisoning of the American public, don't you think you'd see some evidence of it? Show me any. Go ahead. And good luck, cause it ain't there.
    Josh Bloom
    That's simply deflection and a straw man argument. I never claimed azodicarbonamide was unsafe or dangerous. I was responding to the lack of understanding between life expectancy and life span. In addition, I was commenting on the poster's obvious lack of information by simply advancing the agenda that somehow any concern about chemicals was a kind of "tree hugger" mentality. As a result, it was the other poster that essentially claimed that no chemicals were harmful by the false correlation to his interpretation of life span.

    In addition, you were also one that made the same inaccurate comparison, so while I never questioned your knowledge or expertise regarding chemistry, it seemed clear that your knowledge of this kind of basic biological claim was suspect.

    Josh Bloom
    You would be quite amused to know that this discussion sounds EXACTLY like the team meetings that our project teams used to have when I was with Wyeth. The chemists and biologists would be sitting across the table from each other *trying* to speak the same language, while, in reality understanding very little of what the other "side" was saying. Hearing an occasional "what an idiot" mumbled under someone's breath was not all that uncommon either. Rodney King was invoked now and then as well. The nature of the beast, I guess.
    Josh Bloom
    What was the context? Was the comparison to his knowledge of science or did someone wish they could beat someone else for 13 seconds too long?

    We always used 'baby seals' for "I will beat you like" analogies at companies I was at.
    Since you had no problem accusing some people of being "anti-scientific idiots", then at least own up when you make an idiotic statement of your own.

    Josh Bloom
    If you're talking about the lifespan business, you are correct— I have no training whatsoever in this area, and was merely being descriptive, not quantitative. If it's so important to you for me to admit that I was technically wrong about this, I guess I was. But it was not intended to reach any definitive conclusions about the impact of chemical exposure (there is really no such thing, since each chemical must be considered separately, not as a group—a very common fallacy) on human health. This information is not only unknown, but essentially unknowable. 
    Regarding to "anti-scientific idiots," I was referring to people who refuse to use dose/exposure as part of the equation. I stand by this 100%. Can we play nice now?
    Josh Bloom
    Sure. My problem stems from dialogues that increasingly focus on name-calling, by claiming someone is an idiot while the commenter is equally guilty of making idiotic comments. Specifically the tone that suggests that anyone not in agreement with someone's agenda [such as Billy's] must somehow be defective in their thinking, while the same poster wallows in absurdities and ignorance.

    Josh Bloom
    Cool. Here's something that you WILL find funny. In case you didn't read all the comments (or even if you did, it's not necessarily obvious), but Billy is my brother. I kid you not.
    Josh Bloom
    I am, in fact, his brother. And I stand by my opinion that most people are idiots. Now if Anonymous26 cares to explain why life EXPECTANCY is increasing with each passing year (while we're being bombarded by more and more allegedly toxic chemicals!), I'm happy to listen. Otherwise, I'll happily lump him (and his bombastic writing style) in with the aforementioned category.

    OK, let me explain this slowly for the cheap seats.

    As more babies survive, then life expectancy goes up even though no one actually gets older. That's how averaging works.

    Life expectancy can also go up because of medical interventions in those that might have died at younger ages in previous decades. Again, no one actually has to live longer.

    In some cases life expectancy is increasing although one might raise quality of life issues with respect to cancer therapies. This will also effect life expectancy.

    However, let's cut to the chase. You don't really want to know any of this, because you're too enthralled with yourself to listen to anyone else. So it doesn't surprise me that you think most people are idiots ... After all ... birds of a feather and all that.

    Josh Bloom
    Oh my. This isn't going to end well...
    Josh Bloom
    Actually, both you and my brother are wrong. I *do* want to know this, and it's *not* going to end badly. In fact, I found your explanation to be extremely educational; it brought to light a number of things I either didn't know or hadn't considered. So thanks for the clear, interesting explanation.

    That said, I still think most people are idiots. I just don't think you're one of them.

    That horrible meme, that one should not eat "stuff" that one cannot pronounce, needs to be laid at the feet of its originator, the execrable Michael Pollan, in his book "In Defense of Food" (aka "Indefensible Foodie"):


    Am I the only one who notices that virtually all of these "no chemicals" idiots have no problem ingesting all sorts of psychotropic substances?

    Josh Bloom
    One of life's great paradoxes.Also, don't forget the "I don't like to take drugs (prescription) types were/are by FAR the most likely to be professional stoners. Yeah- ecstasy is fine, but a molecule of BPA will cause a penis to grow out of your forehead. Idiots
    Josh Bloom