If you’ve heard of the “yoga mat chemical,” you are one of the millions of Americans within the reach of Vani Hari, a blogger who calls herself, and her blog, the Food Babe. Hari is best known for launching an Internet petition in February asking the Subway sandwich chain to stop using the chemical, a dough conditioner called azodicarbonamide. The Food & Drug Administration-approved food additive is also used as a blowing agent in the manufacture of foamed plastics.
The Internet is home to chemist bloggers as well, and several of them characterized Hari’s Subway petition as promoting chemophobia—in other words, it was hype purposefully engineered to stoke an irrational fear of chemicals.
Still, Hari’s success in attracting media attention to a little-known food additive was a wake-up call for the food industry. Food companies are learning that they must be much more open about the ingredients they use. The alternative is leaving the impression that they don’t care about customers’ concerns or, worse, that they have something to hide.
Subway responded to Hari’s petition by disclosing that it was already in the process of removing azodicarbonamide, but food industry experts argue that the firm should have done more. Ideally, they say, Subway would have responded with information describing what the substance is, why it is safe when used in bread, and how the chain’s use of the additive fits with its “eat fresh” marketing.
“You can see why there is a temptation to just not talk about this stuff,” says John Coupland, a professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University and author of the Chemicals in My Food blog. “I don’t think it’s a choice, though. Food companies have got to be willing to explain what they do and why they do it.”
Hari’s Subway campaign was not the first effort targeting a government-approved food product for outrage. In March 2012, Bettina Siegel, author of the Lunch Tray blog, attracted 250,000 signatures to her petition asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop purchasing lean finely textured beef for the National School Lunch Program. The product, made from processed meat scraps, had been the subject of controversial news stories and garnered the unfortunate nickname “pink slime.”
Other consumer-driven Internet campaigns include one started by Sarah Kavanagh, a high school student concerned about brominated vegetable oil in sports drinks. That was followed by petitions decrying the use of synthetic dyes in such common fare as M&M’s candy and Kraft macaroni and cheese.
Results have been mixed. USDA now allows school districts the choice to serve lunch with or without lean finely textured beef, PepsiCo has removed brominated vegetable oil from its Gatorade drinks, and some lines of Kraft’s iconic dinner now have natural coloring. M&M’s, on the other hand, still contain a rainbow of artificial food colorings.
The attention that online campaigns receive is merely a symptom of a much larger problem facing the food industry, according to Charles Arnot of the Center for Food Integrity: Consumers don’t trust large food corporations to put people’s health ahead of their own profits.
The center represents food producers and works to help them communicate trust in the food system. Arnot has researched the basis of this trust—and mistrust—for seven years. Corporate food scientists want their companies’ reputations to be built on their scientific competency, he says. These men and women care deeply about food safety. “So if we don’t win an argument, we come back with more science,” he says.
But what skeptical consumers are looking for is not science but rather proof that food companies are acting ethically and share their values, Arnot stresses. In particular, consumers think that industrial processes are devoid of human values, that mass production of food means too many opportunities for effects on their health, and that profit motives lead firms to choose ingredients on the basis of cost, not quality.
Hari’s jaundiced view of the food industry started with an inflamed appendix. When she was 22, severe abdominal pain landed her in the emergency room, she tells C&EN. A former nationally ranked debater, she did some research. “I found it was the foods I ate that caused inflammation; at the time I thought I was eating healthy fast food. So I dramatically changed my diet to real, whole food.” She reports that she lost weight and felt better. Making better food choices also reversed her eczema, asthma, and lack of energy, she says.
“Friends and family saw me transform from a puffy, ugly duckling and wanted to know what I was doing,” Hari recalls. She started her food blog for a close circle of intimates and did not intend to make a career out of it. Ten years later, she says, her audience has grown from a handful of readers to 4 million, and her blog is now a full-time job.
The Food Babe blog does not claim to be the work of a scientist. Hari’s degree is in computer science, not chemistry or biology. Instead, by using herself as an example, she says, “I can share how much food choices can change your health outside traditional medicine.”
Most of her posts promote traditional healthy eating themes and recipes. In other posts, though, Food Babe makes commonly used food ingredients such as caramel color sound even less appetizing than her recipe for juiced rainbow chard with garlic. Although her assertions that certain substances are harmful may seem to some readers to come from the world of health science, they are often based on outsider sources including the websites of NaturalNews and the holistic health guru Joseph Mercola, which traffic in questionable claims.
The lack of scientifically informed commentary may lead the scientifically inclined to dismiss Hari’s advocacy. But ignoring peoples’ concerns would be unwise, cautions Marion Nestle, a professor in New York University’s department of nutrition, food studies, and public health.
“I see consumer pressures on food companies as expressions of democracy in action, messy as such things are,” Nestle says. She authors a blog called Food Politics in which she has advocated for a ban on trans fats. “Bloggers can say whatever they like on whatever basis they like,” Nestle points out. But the lesson is clear, she says. “Food makers cannot hide what’s in their products and hope the problem will go away.”
To be seen as trustworthy, Arnot says, food companies must show they are motivated by the well-being of their customers. They must disclose all information about their products and ingredients, both positive and negative, make the information easy for consumers to understand, and build a track record of operating with integrity.
“There will always be some folks who have already made up their mind,” he acknowledges, “but it is important to stay focused on the portion of the audience the food company is trying to engage.”
Coupland, the food science professor, agrees that the industry should be more open about the ingredients it uses. “You also hope the people who campaign about the food system would give industry some credit, too,” he adds.
Hari first contacted Subway nine months before she launched her online petition. She called, e-mailed, and asked the firm via Facebook about azodicarbonamide and what it was used for, but she was met with silence.
Despite the drubbing it took, Subway still seems unreceptive to inquiries from the media: It did not respond to requests for comment from C&EN.