By Andrew Hendricks
What do you do when people claim your product is bunk, fraudulent, or dangerously negligent? Well, if there's no science behind the claim, you can hope that the public listens to your nuanced explanation and that the problem goes away.
Unfortunately, that isn't always enough. When an idea about your brand becomes common knowledge and is repeated often enough in the media, a stigma can be garnered that is nearly impossible to shake. And sometimes, when public outcry is strong enough, a company is left between a rock and a hard place with the choice of making an unnecessary change (admitting there was a problem to begin with), or ignoring public demand and risk further damaging their brand by being seen as an uncaring, faceless corporation.
Take as a recent example the Subway “Yoga Mat Material” controversy. You have likely heard about this at least in passing, as it was reported on by almost every major network.
A popular food blogger posted an inflammatory blog claiming that subway was putting a dangerous, asthma-causing carcinogen into their breads, the same chemical used to fluff yoga mats. The blogger went on to list a multitude of health claims, asserting that the chemical was dangerous to workers, carcinogenic to consume, flammable, and essentially not a food product.
While some news outlets took the time to give a measured response to the scientific claims , many failed to provide the counter-narrative that while azobidarcarbonamide (the chemical in question) is found is some non-food items because of its “doughy” properties, it is found in many food items from brands including Sarah Lee, Little Debbie, Mariano's, Smucker's, Sunbeam, IHOP and Healthy Life.
The food blogger's desire for health advocacy is something that is laudable, however this blogger, who does not purport to be a researcher or scientist of any stripe, made such specific accusations and whirled up a mob with such speed, many assumed that the health claims had merit.
The chief claim, that it is unsafe to workers and customers because of links to asthma, is incredibly misinformed and disingenuous according to neuroscientist Dr. Steve Novella,, Yale professor and President of the New England Skeptical Society. In a scathing critique of the blogger's assertions,. he stated that the chemical “does not trigger or cause asthma when consumed, it is only a risk to factory workers breathing in the raw chemical.”
Dr. Novella countered the blogger's other claim that its “flammability” should be a sign of its danger by pointing out that flour, when dispersed, is also flammable and can cause similar respiratory problems if inhaled. He continued in his post to say that worker safety is something we should take seriously and have protections for in this country, that factory workers should take precautions, and that it is an issue wholly separate from whether Subway bread is harmful to consume or touch.
Yet, by far, the biggest issue that Dr. Novella had with the attack against subway was the food blogger's summation of her complaint with a philosophical warning to her readers: “When you look at the ingredients, if you can’t spell it or pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it.”
Dr. Novella points out that this is anti-science thinking, and quipped that the food blogger might be frightened to learn the chemical makeup of an ordinary apple:
“Alpha-Linolenic-Acid, Asparagine, D-Categin, Isoqurctrin, Hyperoside, Ferulic-Acid, Farnesene, Neoxathin, Phosphatidyl-Choline, Reynoutrin, Sinapic-Acid, Caffeic-Acid, Chlorogenic-Acid, P-Hydroxy-Benzoic-Acid, P-Coumaric-Acid, Avicularin, Lutein, Quercitin, Rutin, Ursolic-Acid, Protocatechuic-Acid.”
While few nutritionists would claim processed foods, in general, are as healthful as less processed foods, there is a very large difference between saying one type of food is more healthful, and saying another type of food is outright harmful. The backlash against Subway rings similar to other popular misconceptions about famous food brands.
For example the claim taken by many as fact that “diet coke causes cancer” is one originating with the widely-reported rat study in which rats, when given ultra-high doses of aspartame (a sugar substitute found in Diet Coke and other sugar-free products), developed a significant increase in lymphoma and leukemia. The fact is that this study was conducted in 2005, and numerous follow-up studies have found no reproducible evidence that aspartame, in amounts that exist in food products, currently poses any danger to humans. The FDA states that the amount of aspartame given to the rats in the 2005 study was “equivalent to drinking 8 to 2,083 cans of diet soda daily.” Saying a rat study found that drinking hundreds of cans of diet soda a day could be potentially dangerous to humans is not the same as the oft-purported claim that “diet coke causes cancer.”
A similar case can be found in the popular myth against McDonald's. The claim, as pointed out on Skepchick.org with derision, is that their food is so stuffed with preservatives that when you leave a McDonald's burger sitting out, it does not rot or mold like a normal burger. This rings familiar to the anti-Subway food blogger's claim that foods with lots of chemicals being inherently bad, but what those who repeat this anecdote forget is that ANY cooked burger, organic, In-N-Out, or from a cow you butchered yourself, when left in a relatively arid environment will simply dry out before rotting. The fact that McDonald's patties do as well is not evidence of anything whatsoever.
In the end, when it came to Subway's own woes they decided to change their recipe, ostensibly bowing to both public demand and outcry. Not acceding any merit to the faulty claim, however, Subway at least put their famous spokesperson Jared Fogle on a media blitz to assure people that while they are changing their recipe (referring to the controversial chemical): “When it was cooked, it was fine.”
Subway may not be happy about this whole ordeal, but at least they will no longer have to deal with the issue, unlike McDonald's who is still receiving bad press for their “Franken-burgers” and bloggers periodically asserting in seriousness that Diet Coke is as bad for you as cigarettes.
Subway is merely stuck with the legacy of having once made bread out of “yoga mat material.” As funny as it sounds, it should be a lesson that we ought to take the science behind a controversy more seriously, before raising the pitchforks.