Bread has become a surprisingly common target for health advocacy groups.
After identifying 500 breads and other food products that contain the so-called yoga mat chemical azodicarbonamide, the Environmental Working Group, a D.C.-based nonprofit that has been campaigning against food additives and chemicals, published today a list of 86 foods that contain potassium bromate, an ingredient in some flours that the group says is "a possible cancer-causing additive." It is used "to strengthen the dough, allow it to rise higher and give the finished bread an appealing white color."
The EWG is launching a petition Wednesday urging food manufacturers who still use the additive in things from rolls to pastries and pizza crusts to stop using it immediately.
The debate on whether potassium bromate belongs in our food has been ongoing for decades. The baking process typically eliminates potassium bromate, but if too much is used or if the bread isn't cooked long enough, the residual amounts can be harmful. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers the usage of potassium bromate in bread safe as long as it doesn't exceed a certain amount (75 parts per million by weight of flour). The additive may also be used for malting barley for malt beverages or distilled spirits.
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, another advocacy group, bromate was first found to cause tumors in rats in 1982. The group called for a ban against the additive in 1999.
Bromates have been banned in the U.K., Canada, Brazil, and the European Union. There is no ban in the U.S., but California declared it a carcinogen in 1991 and products that contain it must have a cancer warning, causing most bakers in the state to go bromate-free.
Nationally, "the FDA has not taken any action whatsoever on our petition. Nevertheless, most bakers have stopped using potassium bromate," CSPI President Michael Jacobson told BuzzFeed News.
After making the switch, "the only changes that most bakers find they need to make are slightly longer mixing times," according to the website of King Arthur Flour, a Vermont flour company. "As you do not want to increase the final temperature of your dough through this additional mixing you must lower your initial water temperature."
While many food manufacturers voluntarily stopped using the additive, the FDA "hasn't made any official statements or issued any guidance documents to manufacturers explicitly asking them to discontinue the use of potassium bromate in baking products," said EWG database analyst Jose Aguayo. He called the use of this unnecessary chemical additive "one example showing how broken the food additive review system is at the federal regulatory level."
Despite the benefits some additives bring to food manufacturing, consumers have become increasingly wary of chemicals and are looking for simpler ingredients labels.
Potassium bromate was one of the ingredients banned from Panera as the bakery cafe chain removes artificial preservatives, sweeteners, colors, and flavors from its food. It is also prohibited in Whole Foods grocery stores.