Food Babe

Blogosphere exerts new consumer influence on food industry

Earlier this year, an American blogger, Vani Hari (left), author of the Food Babe blog. scored a high-profile victory in their campaign against a common bread ingredient — a dough conditioner called azodicarbonamide that’s also used in yoga mats and other plastics — when Subway announced it was dropping the substance from its dough recipe. The case highlights the powerful influence of online campaigns, and how they are changing the food industry.

An article in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), the weekly news magazine of the American Chemical Society, notes that consumers’ curiosity and outrage about what’s in their food has fueled a number of vehement and well-publicised Internet campaigns in recent years.

Online petitions have attacked the “pink slime” of processed meats in school lunches, synthetic dyes in popular foods for kids and brominated vegetable oil in sports drinks. So far, the results have been mixed, with some companies shifting to alternative ingredients, while others are holding the line.

Whether there’s solid science behind the claims is another story altogether. Critics of some of these food bloggers say these campaigns often lack scientific evidence to support their claims, and the only thing they promote is paranoia.

Regardless, growing public awareness about questionable food ingredients has delivered a powerful message to the food industry: Consumers don’t trust large corporations to prioritise their health over profits. And the industry is taking notice.

An extract from the article….

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 FDA-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 US 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.”…

…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…..

Chemical & Engineering News: Read the full article