“Chemical overreaction” (Panera and sodium benzoate)


Panera Bread sponsored a fireworks display in Johnston City, Ill., this year, giving the town its first such Independence Day celebration in 10 years. What would have been a commendable act was spoiled by the fearmongering which accompanied it. Although a more accurate description of the spectacle might be a fearmongering campaign slightly mitigated by a fireworks show.  

Accompanying the July 4 festivity was an advertising blitz which pointed out that both fireworks and mustard contain sodium benzoate, a preservative to retard spoilage. Panera had ostentatiously removed this ingredient from its yellowed condiment, then Tweeted, “Call us crazy, but we think that if it’s in fireworks, it shouldn’t be in food.”

Not crazy, just ignorant of how chemistry works. In truth, Panera copywriters are probably stupid instead of ignorant. They likely know that a molecule’s properties change depending on what it is combined or mixed with. But they also know there are millions of persons unaware of this, and that this scientific illiteracy can be used to entice customers.

But they didn’t fool everyone. Responses to the Panera panic included, “Salts and carbons are also in fireworks,” and “Formaldehyde is naturally occurring in foods.” There was also this zinger: “Potassium belongs in bombs, not bananas. Am I doing this right?”

Indeed, the shameful Panera episode would be like railing against a Girl Scout lemonade stand for selling a product that contains dihydrogen monoxide, which is also found in Liquid-Plumr. Similarly, butanediol is found in many cheeses and is also used to make antifreeze, and there are as many examples of this as there are products on the market.

When an ingredient is in food at unsafe levels, this will be discovered by industry or independent scientists, the product will be pulled or refined, the results will be published in journals and trade publications, and precautions will be taken to guard against it reoccurring. That’s how science works; it’s not done via advertising Tweets intended to dampen federal holidays.

While Panera loudly proclaimed its removal of artificial sodium benzoate, in quietly continues to sell food that contains the substance in natural form. Panera should be avoided for its anti-science agenda, but not for its menu ingredients. There is no evidence the amount of the sodium benzoate in Panera’s cheese and berries poses any health risk, and this is true of any food containing the substance anywhere.

Panera’s Twitter campaign came with an equally alarmist sidebar that a few credulous media outlets ran. In it, the chain warned about “difficult to pronounce words,” as if the number of syllables was related to safety. And if the ability to recite an ingredient indicates harmlessness, then any ingredient is OK as long as it’s being ingested by a chemist.

The release also blared, “Some artificial preservatives have been linked to potential health risks.” This has sometimes been true, depending on the ingredient, the dose, and the age of the person taking it. But when that happens, it’s fixed, and this is no reason for a wholesale rejection of artificial ingredients. There are natural preservatives that would be unsafe at certain levels, too.

The delirious dietary diatribe drones on with, “Another unpalatable sounding artificial preservative, azodicarbonamide, is also found in yoga mats and shoes with rubber soles. One of azodicarbonamide’s breakdown components is a recognized carcinogen,” which is irrelevant since that component is mixed with others, rendering azodicarbonamide safe. During a chemical reaction, atoms rearrange themselves to produce new substances. For any Panera executives reading this, welcome to Chemistry 101.

Finally, yet another instance of a plummeting sky: “Butylated hydroxyanisole (BH) is hard to say and harder to swallow. It is found in cereals and chewing gum, but is also used in rubber and petroleum products. It might be better used in our plastic than served on our plates.” This is a nonsensical as saying it would be OK to drink gasoline because it contains BH, which is also found in potato chips.

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