On using chemophobia to try and sell hot dogs

As a parent of young kids, in the middle of a hot summer, I am a natural target demographic for hot dog advertisements. My kids love hot dogs and I don’t want to guess how many they have consumed in the last 12 months. Yes, I know hot dogs have any number of negative stereotypes: “too full of nitrates”, “meat of uncertain provenance”, “processed meat and colorectal cancer”. Well my counter is that hot dogs are tasty and a good way to get protein into young, growing bodies. Given that my family’s diet is heavily skewed towards fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains and my kids share my dislike of most beans; finding a form of protein they will eat has been a challenge. So, I will continue to serve them hot dogs as part of a well-balanced diet. But that isn’t the point of this post. Besides being a parent, I am also a Chemist and my concern is the way marketers use chemophobia as the basis of their marketing campaigns. This lazy ploy plays right into the hands of the people who want to put them out of business and works towards creating a less-informed and science-fearing populace.

Chemophobia is the fear, distrust, or dislike of anything seen as a “chemical” and some companies run entire advertising campaigns centered on the concept. The one that most recently caught my eye was by Maple Leaf Foods. It is a real pity because what Maple Leaf Foods has done behind the scenes is pretty great. Read their new “Food Manifesto” and it is hard not to be pleased: they have simplified their products while working to reduce their impact on air, water and land and advancing the cause of food security. This is great stuff and represents reasons why my family would want to eat Maple Leaf Foods products over their competitors. But instead of highlighting these solid advances they have gone forward with an entirely cynical and misleading advertisement campaign.

Look at the current Maple Leaf ad campaign. Maybe it is just the channels my family watches, but I have been absolutely overwhelmed with dumb ads about kids at a spelling bee:

This is boilerplate chemophobia. It might as well have been designed by the Food Babe. You might wonder why I bring up the Food Babe? Well do you think it is a coincidence that BHT was featured in one ad? Anyone who has followed the chemophobia movement knows all about the food babe and her battle against BHT. It is a chemical that has been demonized, not because it is unsafe but because it sounds unsafe. For anyone who has followed this topic this is like waving a sheet at a bull. It is textbook chemophobia.

The problem is the chemophobia movement has been repeatedly shown to be entirely bogus. It has even generated a parody counter-movement: the ban dihydro monoxide (DHMO or water to the rest of us) movement. But to make a point let’s consider how absolutely ridiculous the Maple Leaf Foods advertisement campaign really is. Let’s look at their top top arguments:

  • Eliminating ingredients that are hard to spell: lead is a very short word that is really easy to spell and yet I don’t want it in the food I give my kids. Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) is a really scary sounding, multi-syllabic word and yet I look to ensure my kids get enough of it each day.
  • Only natural ingredients: cobra venom and arsenic are both natural compounds that I definitely don’t want my kids to encounter. Ibuprofen is a lab-created compound that I absolutely want my kids to have when they get a fever.

Lets go back to that list from the commercials. Did you hear the last one they wanted us to stop using? It was dextrose. Dextrose is a simple sugar (d-glucose). It is one of the most natural “chemicals” out there. It is the basis of human metabolic pathways. Can you name a compound less benign? Perhaps DHMO? As for the alternatives for compounds like dextrose? Well this is what the CEO had to say:

part of what company chief executive Michael McCain bills as the “single biggest brand strategy initiative” in the 91-year history of the company, one which will see Maple Leaf switch 44 meat products that contain multi-syllabic preservatives and flavour-producing additives over to using basic ingredients such as lemon juice, salt and vinegar.

So what are they replacing evil chemicals like dextrose with: lemon juice (citric acid), salt (sodium chloride) and vinegar (acetic acid). Call me crazy but sodium chloride has more syllables than dextrose so by their logic we shouldn’t be using it should we? I can imagine the exact same commercial being run with the same kids and asking them to spell acetic acid. I imagine the same stunned response as that kid responding to dextrose. Put simply, this advertising campaign is playing on the public’s ignorance of household chemistry. People trust compounds when we use their common name while mistrusting compounds known by their chemical names. In doing so it is fostering an anti-science agenda and systematically making us all more jaded in the process.

What is more bizarre is that this entire campaign literally plays into the hands of the very people who want to see large food processing companies, like Maple Leaf Foods, destroyed. The “science is scary” crowd don’t like any processed foods so feeding their ignorance with this type of ridiculous ad campaign only helps those campaigners.

Companies like Maple Leaf Foods, with campaigns like this, are metaphorically pushing boulders off a hillside oblivious to the fact that their company is metaphorically located at the bottom of the hill. Sure they may get some short-term gain but at the cost of public confidence in our food system and building up the prestige of the people hell-bent on destroying them. Most importantly, it makes obvious supporters (like myself) look to alternative producers even when I would naturally gravitate to good food at a reasonable price. I’m not going to claim that I won’t buy Maple Leaf Products (because I probably will), but when two comparable products look back at me from the shelf I am going to pick the one that isn’t run by craven marketers who play on the lowest instincts of the public.

To conclude, if Maple Leaf Foods were to ask me, I would tell them that they should be talking up the truly positive aspects of their new programs. They should be creating commercials that emphasize how they are helping improve food security for the poor and lowering impacts on the land while generating cleaner water and less waste. All these are great topics to highlight a beneficial and forward-thinking company. It is a pity they instead decided to go with this anti-science dreck. They should really be ashamed of themselves.

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3 Responses to On using chemophobia to try and sell hot dogs

  1. Good article – this vilification of chemicals has been bugging me too. We’re all made up of chemistry! I wonder how afraid they are of dihydrogen monoxide? 😉

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    • Rick Henwood says:

      In a world that wants to ban Carbon (a very basic and very necessary element for any thing organic, how ironic the same people will pay double & drive 50 miles to buy “Organic Food”) or the most naturally occuring of Carbon derivatives, CO2 all the while ignoring something lethal to humans such as CO, Dihydo(gen) Monoxide or as Blair abreviates, DHMO, best known as H2O can’t be very far behind.

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  2. Ruud Hommel says:

    Mainly because of being a food agnostic (taste matters), I found this a fun read.
    OK, the message is clear and I hope that MLF will react, in the blog, like Dr. Mercure did concerning his work.
    Not being impressed by most of the compound names (blissful ignorance), even though “butylated hydroxytoluene” did read like ominous, because of the toluene part, I just had to follow those links that did not ring a bell (most).
    I especially liked “tetrasodium pyrophosphate” and the fact that it may be found in soy-based meat alternatives.

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