Steven Novella takes on Panera Bread for its recent ad, which says “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.”

The accompanying video opens with people in hazard suits handling sodium benzoate, which they state can be found in many foods as a preservative. They then ask, “But what if instead of doing harm sodium benzoate could be used to do good?” What harm are they referring to? That’s a good question.

This is, unfortunately, a clear example of fearmongering as a marketing campaign. Imply that some feature or ingredient is dangerous, and then proudly state that your product doesn’t have it. This leads the consumer to believe that other products do have it, and just to be safe they better avoid all competitors. In this case the deception is that sodium benzoate and other artificial preservatives “do harm.”

The new wrinkle in this marketing approach is the Food Babe tactic of implying that an ingredient is harmful because it is found in non-food items. She famously attacked Subway for using azodicarbonamide as a bleaching agent in their breads. This is a perfectly safe substance as used, but it also has a variety of industrial uses as a blowing agent. It is included in some plastics and rubbers, leading the Food Babe to call it the “Yoga mat chemical.” She therefore likened eating food made with azodicarbonamide with eating yoga mats.

Novella continues:

The fact that sodium benzoate can also be used in explosives is completely irrelevant to its safety as a food additive, and Panera should frankly be ashamed that they have based a marketing campaign on such anti-scientific fearmongering.

Read Novella’s full piece here. I second his shaming of Panera for its fearmongering. The company should be better than that.