My grandmother is a passionate baker and I have watched her spend hours trying to bake the perfect bread. There was something very comforting about the sweet, smoky aroma that filled my house. I knew I never had the patience to make one, so I didn’t bother to learn. I wonder if I should have because the slice that I ate for breakfast yesterday is not what it seems, apparently.
A new report published by the Centre of Environment and Science (CSE) has given us cause for concern. CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory conducted few tests between May and June last year with bread samples collected from companies like Harvest Gold, Britannia, Le Marche, KFC, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, McDonald’s, Slice of Italy and Subway in Delhi. They tested different varieties of white bread, whole wheat , sandwich breads, pizza breads, burger buns and pavs and their results have brought two chemical additives under scrutiny. The big reveal was difficult to swallow and we decided to dig deeper and seek expert advice.
Potassium Bromate (appears as E number E924 on the label) and Potassium Iodate act as flour improvers. These chemical additives are mostly used in flours, bread and bakery products. They help hold the bread dough together and make it rise and fluffy. They are also used as bleaching agents to give bread its white look. When used under the right conditions, they may get completely used up but if added excessively or the bread is not baked long enough or at a high enough temperature, they may sneak their way as residues in the final product.
Should we be alarmed? “Potassium Bromate is being used by the industry since a long time. It was during the 1980s when health organisations and particularly WHO (World Health Organisation) recognised that it may have the potential to cause cancer. Thereafter, many studies were conducted which strengthened these claims and countries like UK, Australia, Canada, Brazil and China banned its use. As far as Potassium Iodate is concerned, it is a known fact that excess Iodine in the body can affect the functions of the thyroid gland,” shares Dr. Ritika Samaddar, Regional Head- Dietetics, Max Healthcare, New Delhi.
She adds, “Chemical residues when consumed by humans are not broken down in the body and they pass through the kidneys. This may put excessive load on the kidneys that can lead to renal tumours. They can also cause cell multiplication at a higher rate.” Another Delhi-based Nutritionist, Dr. Anshul Jai Bharat agrees and warns me that these chemicals tend to generate a lot of free radicals in the body which can initiate uncontrollable cell growth and thus, causing cancer. As a better alternative she recommends buying fresh bread from nearby bakeries.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) was one of the first organisations to declare Potassium Bromate as “possibly carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to humans”. According to CSE’s findings, 32 out of 38 samples tested were found with Potassium Bromate and/or Potassium Iodate residues in the range of 1.15–22.54 parts per million. Further, the labelling across the various brands was inconsistent. The use of these additives is permissible in India and in the United States up to a certain limit. The Food safety and Standards Authority of India earlier permitted the use of these addictive up to 50 ppm for bread and 20 ppm for flours and bakery products but the limits for the residues have not been defined.
Dr. Saurabh Arora, Founder of the Food Safety Helpline who has also setup two contract laboratories and a clinical research company, has another viewpoint, “Bromate is legally allowed to be used in breads and flours but it is not just present in bakery products. Bromate in drinking water was first highlighted by the WHO. It was found that Bromate is usually formed in packaged drinking water due to the reaction between ozone which is used as a disinfectant and naturally-occurring bromide in source water. This could be the case in these breads also as none of the companies have accepted that they used the additive. It is possible that the residues were formed naturally during the use of oxidizing agents. Bromate may also be formed in hypochlorite solutions produced by electrolysis of bromide-containing salt. Let’s face it, when it comes to industrial products, chemical levels can never be zero. For anything to be poisonous, it takes very large quantities to be ingested. As per WHO, the acceptable total daily intake of Bromide is up to 0.1 mg per litre per kg body weight and the residues found in bread are way below. Yet, it’s good to be aware.”
Following these reports, FSSAI has urged the government to pass a ban on the use of Potassium Bromate as a food additive while suggesting that it is ‘safe to eat bread’. The jury is still out on Potassium Iodate. I asked Dr Dipanjan Panda, Oncologist at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals and Member of European Society of Medical Oncology, if these cancer-causing suspicions could be real, “There are Probable-Carcinogens and Definite-Carcinogens. Potassium Bromate comes under probable carcinogens and hence it’s not definite that it will cause cancer. In a Japanese research study by Kurukawa titled, Toxicity and Carcinogenicity of Potassium Bromate, it is revealed that the agent is carcinogenic in rats when given orally but there is no evidence to prove that it causes cancer in humans. There is a possibility that it may damage the DNA by releasing Bromine in the cells.”
This is not the first time the bread-making industry has been attacked. It was not long ago when Subway announced, after much controversy, that it will be removing a hazardous chemical called azodicarbonamide which was used in their bread and is also found in yoga mats and shoe soles. Dr. Harsh Dua, Oncologist at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital in New Delhi, briefly sums it up, “The causes of cancer are multi-factorial. From milk to sugarand fats to fruits and vegetables, these days everything contains chemicals in some form. It is not easy to assess the definite effects of these chemicals as most of us are exposed to them. Different chemicals may trigger different reactions in people. But it’s true that our changing eating habits and food patterns have put us at a higher risk of developing cancer than our ancestors.”
The questions lingers. Are we contaminating our body with everyday products? Triclosan, for instance. It is used as an anti-bacterial in toothpastes and is known to cause hormonal imbalances. Recently, I also figured that there could be iron filings swirling in my cup of tea– a contaminant that enters tea powder because of the way it’s processed. There are also healthier alternatives to Potassium Bromate like Ascorbic Acid and Glucose Oxidase that can serve the same purpose in bread-making. If only the chemical community would commit towards developing safer products, rather than trying to defend its right to use suspected carcinogens and cheaper alternatives.
These warnings are a reminder to unsuspecting consumers who know far too little about the long-term impact of exposure to such chemicals and contaminants. The secret world of processed foods is finally revealing itself to us. It is, therefore, of utmost importance that gaps in our knowledge are reliably filled so that we can make the best choices, especially when it’s about what you eat and where it’s coming from. Point made, I hope.