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Food Fights: 'Food Babe' and Other Activists Rattle Big Food

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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."                


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