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 FoodBabe.com. 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 Salon.com, 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