When It Comes to Food, Perception Is Not Reality
Earlier this year, Vani Hari, the “Food Babe,” began an online petition targeting the additive azodicarbonamide, which was present in the bread used to make Subway sandwiches. Hari bolstered her drive for the removal of the additive by stating that azodicarbonamide was an ingredient in yoga mats and shoe soles and thus could not be safe for human consumption. During the session “Azodicarbonamide: A Case Study of Perceptions of the Safety of Food Ingredients,” on Sunday, June 22, Greg Noonan of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that the agency had approved azodicarbonamide as an additive to flour at 45 parts per million (ppm). Moreover, he pointed out that the FDA’s process to recognize food additives as safe is rigorous and involves several steps, including a full review of safety data (toxicology studies) and consumption data. Nevertheless, by April 2014 Subway had agreed to remove the additive from its loaves of bread. Why?
Linda Eatherton of Ketchum Global Food & Nutrition said that in the modern world, science does not have the respect that perhaps it once did. She identified three types of consumers: the general population, food-involved individuals, and food e-vangelists. The latter are highly educated influencers who are on a mission to change people’s minds about food and their purchasing decisions. Food e-vangelists such as Vani Hari feel stronger as they gain more public attention regardless of whether they are accurate or right, and their predominant mode of e-vangelizing is social media. They use Twitter and Facebook extensively, and stories that trend on social media platforms receive national attention from news media. This new paradigm of information dissemination challenges the old corporate norm of only providing information on a need to know basis.
In response, some manufacturers are abandoning ingredients that receive negative attention by food e-vangelists as well as food activists. This trend to produce products with clean labels has some manufacturers removing ingredients that are denigrated online and replace them with ingredients that seem clean but may be just as controversial. For example, nitrates on labels are being replaced with celery salts, which are still nitrates. According to Lisa Lefferts of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), this is counterproductive. CSPI jumped on the anti-azodicarbonamide bandwagon when it realized that Hari would be launching an online petition, and Lefferts said that the organization withdrew its approval for azodicarbonamide not solely because of the petition but also over concerns of the additive’s breakdown products urethane and semicarbazide. CSPI would like to eliminate all unnecessary risks from the food supply even if the risks are small. Legal does not equate with safe or safe enough, and safe does not equate with healthy.
Eatherton pointed out that the solution for food manufacturers in the age of social media knowledge is to stop fighting questions about ingredients and find a way to respond in a way that brings science and the scientific process forward.