Feb 28 2014

More Yoga Mat Hysteria

The “yoga mat chemical” (azodicarbonamide) is the latest food-based fearmongering, thanks to an unscientific petition by the self-described “food babe,” who apparently feels that she is qualified because she is a computer scientist. (Well, it has the word “science” in it.)

Unfortunately, the “yoga mat chemical” is an effective meme. Who wants to eat something that can be found in a yoga mat? Many journalists, such as Lindsay Abrams, have bought into the meme without any critical analysis. Abrams helpfully provides a list to her readers of “500 more foods containing the yoga mat chemical.”

Here are some other foods her readers might also want to reconsider:

This popular health food can also be found in industrial lubricants, solvents, cleaners, paints, inks adhesives and hydraulic fluid. It is burned as fuel. It is also used to make foam found in, “coolers, refrigerators, automotive interiors and even footwear.” It is used to make carpet backing and insulation.

But the worst part is – it is also used to make yoga mats.

This other “yoga mat” food is also known as soy. So think twice before eating that next tofu burger. (Hat tip to “Ziggy” for bringing up this example.)

The food babe also gives this helpful advice:

“When you look at the ingredients, if you can’t spell it or pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it.”

Let’s see if we can apply this rule of thumb to help us decide what foods are likely to be healthy. Here are some lists of ingredients, see if you can pronounce them:

1- Oleic acid, Linoleic acid, Palmitic acid, Stearic acid, α-Linolenic acid, polyphenols, oleocanthal, oleuropein, aldehydic secoiridoids, flavonoids, acetoxypinoresinol, pinoresinol, hydroxytyrosol


3 – 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

I could go on, but you get the point. These are olive oil, coffee, and apples, respectively. Did you know that coffee has putrescine in it? You could, of course, go over each an every chemical ingredient and show that in high enough doses they are deadly toxins, they probably should’t be breathed in, and factory workers might be at risk if directly exposed to the purified or aerosolized form.

When confronted with my criticism that claiming that azodicarbonamide is linked to asthma in the context of a petition to remove it from bread is misleading, because it does not trigger or cause asthma when consumed, it is only a risk to factory workers breathing in the raw chemical, the food babe responded (I’m paraphrasing) – don’t those scientists care about the factory workers? Nice way to move the goalpost. 

Of course we care about the safety of factory workers. If it were found that azodicarbonamide could not be safely used, then I would understand and favor its banning. However, industrial workers are potentially exposed to all sorts of harmful chemicals. That is why there are regulations to protect them – requiring proper ventilation, breathers, working under hoods, eye protection, and other safety measures. I also think we should put as much distance between workers and harmful chemicals as possible.

If one is going to make the case that azodicarbonamide should be banned because of its risk to workers, then we need more than just a study showing it is a mild asthma trigger. How is it handled? Are safety measures adequate? Are there any cases of actual harm? How does it compare to other things that workers are potentially exposed to? Many people have pointed out that flour itself is potentially very dangerous (the food babe has no problem with flour, cause it’s natural). Breathing in flour dust is very dangerous, probably more so than azodicarbonamide. Flour dust is flammable. There were 115 reported flour dust explosions between 1994 and 2003.

What the food babe is engaging in is fear mongering of “chemicals” and anything “unnatural.” This is not a rational or science-based position. Everything we eat is made of chemicals (many with long and difficult to pronounce names). Natural vs unnatural does not matter at all.

It is also misleading to think of some chemicals as “toxins.” This is a false dichotomy. Everything is potentially toxic depending on dose and route of administration. I agree that we need scientific evidence and regulations to keep human exposure to substances far below the level where there is any harm to health. I agree with the principle that we should err on the side of caution. I don’t think corporations should have free reign.

What we need is a rational science-based conversation about the evidence and how best to protect human health in our complex industrialized civilization. Fearmongering based on pseudoscience and logical fallacies that fosters a misunderstanding of the relevant science and seeks to replace an evidence-based process with populist movements that are the equivalent of angry mobs with torches and pitch forks, is not the answer.

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