Oh the humanity of it all! Back in November I had written about the decidedly weird chemophobia around Sodium Benzoate being promoted by Panera Bread, one of my favorite bakery and soup-salad places in the US. As I wrote, my wife and I love to eat there, but its anti-science, pro-pseudoscience stance on this issue was profoundly disappointing. Well, three-quarters of a year later, it turns out they are still assiduously at it.

This realization got kind of hammered into my consciousness through an interesting means – a promoted (i.e. paid for) tweet by Panera Bread, which had lately been a steady fixture as the second tweet on my iPhone screen whenever I’d open the iOS Twitter app, propagating the same-old, daft chemophobia about Sodium Benzoate… Good grief.

Interestingly, the point they are harping on now is no longer the erstwhile ‘OMG cannot draw Sodium Benzoate structure’, but has now evolved into something else… something explosive, namely, ‘Fireworks!’

Say, whaaat?

Yup. In this current shtick, Panera Bread says —reinforcing the idea with an appropriately scary ~3 minutes video (which is what shows up in the promoted tweets)— to its consumers:

Sodium Benzoate is an artificial preservative found in sauces, jellies, and pickled foods. It’s also an active ingredient in fireworks. So to celebrate the removal of all artificial preservatives from Panera food, we brought Independence Day fireworks to Johnston City, IL, for the first time in 10 years.

panera sodium benzoate

Screenshot captured from part of the Panera Bread page on Sodium Benzoate (URL as above)

… the basic idea being that they are removing bad, BAD Sodium Benzoate from their foods, and utilizing it instead to make fireworks for a city in Illinois: ‘OMG Sodium Benzoate is present in fireworks!! It has no business being in the pure, pristine food items made by Panera Bread.’ Of course, in the repetitious flogging of this particular deceased equine, Panera Bread is deliberately ignoring the science on Sodium Benzoate, especially basic chemistry. In promoting their holier-than-thou façade, Panera is playing off the lack of chemistry knowledge of people in general, as pointed out by chemist Derek Lowe in his evidence-based, explanatory treatment of the subject in an essay published in Science Translational Medicine last week. Without any undue mincing of words, Derek wrote:

Panera’s ad is a cute graphic is all about how sodium benzoate is found in fireworks, so it shouldn’t be in your delicious food. The problem is, a goodly number of Panera’s menu items – such as all the ones with cheese, and all the ones with berries – contain plenty of sodium benzoate already, in some proportion with benzoic acid. It’s stupid and disingenuous of them to pretend that they’re protecting their customers from evil industrial chemicals, when the same stuff is found in their own ingredients. As many readers will appreciate, you can play the same game with all sorts of other ingredients. Lactic acid (found in milk) is used in tanning leather. Palmitic acid, found in meats, coconut oil, sunflower seeds and many other foods, is used in making soap. 2,3-butanediol (a flavor component of many cheeses) is used in making printing ink and as antifreeze. I could go on all day; any organic chemist could. The entertainment value goes down after a while, because the fundamental premise (Good Healthy Natural Stuff versus Toxic Sludge) is stupid to start with.

So Panera, you’re playing on people’s lack of knowledge of chemistry in order to make yourselves look good. Your reasoning is faulty and your science is wrong. Your ads are offensive to anyone who actually understands chemistry, not that you care much, and you’re claiming a halo for yourselves that you don’t have.

Derek wrote (do go read it, it’s excellent!) pretty much everything that needed to be said about l’affaire de Sodium Benzoate. Interestingly, while reading Derek’s essay, it occurred to me that the ‘Sodium Benzoate in fireworks ZOMG!!eleventy111‘ riff of Panera Bread suffers from a serious oversight, which hasn’t been pointed out yet to my knowledge. [Note the appearance of an evil gleam in my eyes.]

Hey Panera Bread! So… You know what else goes into fireworks? Dextrin, a water-soluble pyrotechnic binder & fuel; sometimes even dextrose (as fuel for rocket propellants) or sucrose (to produce smoke). Don’t they sound rather… familiar? Yup, that’s because dextrose is glucose, sucrose is two sugars chained together, and dextrin is a daisy-chained polymer of glucose. Which is why the basic chemical formula for all these starch-derived materials happens to be the same as the common sugar you use in all delicacies – namely, [C6H12O6]x, ‘x’ referring to the number of units depending on the carbohydrate.

Want to know how Dextrin is produced, Panera Bread? It’s made from starch (often cornstarch for homemade fireworks) by applying dry heat (say, in an oven) under acidic conditions, and also by enzymes during the digestion of starch in the human body. Interestingly, Dextrin is ALSO present in that lovely crispy & utterly delish crust of your breads, formed during the baking process, providing flavor, color and texture.

So, my dear Panera Bread… my question to you:

“Along with Sodium Benzoate, will breads, too, be gone from your menu now, since they’re literally coated with the same substance as in fireworks?”

And along the same vein, I simply MUST also ask: “Will you also remove from your menu the deadly chemical dihydrogen monoxide found in cancer cells AND used in some of the early stages of fireworks preparation?”

Your eager, health-conscious consumers would love to have your thoughts on this, I’m sure.

P.S.This post is a slightly larger version of a tweetstorm I did in the wee hours of this morning.

P.P.S. These days, whenever I write or tweet anything debunking pseudoscience, I wish I could wield the “Lasso of Truth” with as much facility & élan as does Dr. Jennifer Gunter in chopping down pseudoscience and shaming its purveyors. If you haven’t yet read her masterful takedown of the garden of flagrantly unscientific nonsense that is GOOP, what are you waiting for? Go read THIS; you’ll enjoy it, I promise.