But it’s only words!

Headline-writing is an art form, I accept that. The few times that I’ve been asked to come up with a sufficiently descriptive, yet concise and catchy phrase to preface an article, I’ve failed miserably. So what follows next is anything but an argument from authority, but…

I hate headlines like this: Subway Chain Will Stop Putting a Chemical Used in Rubber in Its Bread.*

From a scientific level, this kind of a headline is blatantly click-bait, designed to outrage people who don’t stop and think what the word ‘chemical’ means. Which would probably be the same kind of person who would trust the word ‘natural’ (or its counterpart, ‘contains no artificial’) when prefaced when any ingredient in their shopping carts. If anyone ever argues with me that anything natural is always better than anything artificial, I plan to sell them a bottle’s worth of Arsenic.

The article itself is actually quite informative:

That footlong loaf baking in your local Subway’s oven could contain an ingredient called azodicarbonamide. It’s an additive the U.S. Food and Drug Administration permits for use in restricted amounts to strengthen dough and to increase the shelf life of bread, and as a bleaching ingredient in cereal flour—it also happens to be used in plastics and rubber. After a petition launched this week, the ubiquitous sandwich chain announced on Wednesday that it will stop using the additive, though it did not say when.

Azodicarbonamide—banned from use in food in Europe and Australia—is used in the U.S. in Subway’s 9-grain wheat bread, Italian bread, and sourdough bread [PDF]. In Canada it’s in deli-style rolls and Italian bread [PDF]. It can also be found in buns at other restaurant chains and in some grocery aisle breads.

Now this decision by Subway should actually be welcomed, though its not surprising that Europe has led the way in the regulation of food additives over their neighbours across the pond. But ‘chemical used in rubber’ annoys me on a geeky level: benign chemicals (salt!) might have applications in a variety of industries. Wikipedia tells me that only 6% of salt is used for dietary purposes, the rest can be used for anything from making chlorine, PVC and plastics to…. hey, wait a minute, synthetic rubber!

This is possibly part of a larger trend where headlines are designed to be as ‘viral’ as possibly by using tactics honed by tabloid writers since the previous century, but where the tabloids never competed with broadsheets today Buzzfeed and Upworthy are edging the old established media out of the news space. The result? CNN putting up headlines that go “14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you.” (No, I won’t link to it. It’s not worth giving them an extra click).

Maybe the horse has already bolted and locking the stable door is pointless but I wouldn’t mind going back to a time where headlines were factual and ‘viral’ was just a disease.

*The way the headline is written, I could also parse it in a different way and ask, “But they’ll continue to put rubber in their bread, right?”

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