Go for a soda

I feel guilty about my fridge and it’s highly likely that you should feel guilty about yours too. That’s because I have a box of baking soda sitting in the nether regions protecting the good name of my housekeeping skills by silently absorbing the sins of sour milk, sauerkraut and stinky cheese. In case you missed the press release, there is currently a dire shortage of sodium bicarbonate in North America. And I might be part of the problem. Or maybe not. Maybe all the blame sits squarely on the hefty shoulders of Arm & Hammer.

The invention of sodium bicarbonate goes way back to some French guy in 1791. Then there was a lull of about 50 years until some enterprising bakers derived baking soda by combining sodium bicarbonate with carbon dioxide and as the saying goes the rest is history. Except maybe not the history you think you know.

Shortly after baking soda debuted as a kitchen marvel, a company called Church & Dwight began manufacturing it and packaging it for sale under the Arm & Hammer brand (Mr. Church and Mr. Dwight being clearly enamored with the ampersand). Now you might think it a little foolish to base your consumer products empire around a simple chemical compound that virtually anyone could produce but Church & Dwight did just that. In fact, with 92% recognition, the Arm & Hammer logo is one of the top five trademarks in the U.S., right up there with Google and Coca Cola.

Everything went swimmingly for Arm & Hammer until the early 1970s when women stopped baking cookies all day and started to work outside the home. That’s when the marketing folks swung into action inventing new and better uses for the product. The first one was an alternative to store bought toothpaste. And the second was as a deodorizer for refrigerators and freezers. And now please forgive me for bursting a very big bubble: it has never actually been proven to work. But that did not deter the savvy marketers at C & D. They needed to make sure that there would be adequate churn on the box in the fridge so they decided to say it was only good for 30 days, after which you had to pour it down the sink (bonus: it also cleans drains!) and buy a new package.

But back to the shortage thing. Even if the deodorizer is just a placebo effect, there are several very legitimate uses for sodium bicarbonate outside of the baking thing, one of which is as a sterile injectable to treat a condition called acidosis and to help stabilize organs that are failing, and as it turns out this is the portion of the market experiencing a supply problem. But it is also a key ingredient in a common form of fireworks (strangely enough another key ingredient is sugar, which begs the question of how none of us have managed to blow up the kitchen while making banana bread…) and it is kryptonite to cockroaches, a fact I wish I had known when living in some of the dodgier areas of town.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *