Bread, in some form or the other has been a part of the human diet from prehistoric times and continues to be relished all over the world. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) recently published a report that gave bread eaters in India a jolt. They reported that potassium bromate and potassium iodate, both cancer causing chemicals, were detected in packaged bread, burger buns and pizza bases. Following the report, the consumption of bread fell drastically in some parts of the country.
So what exactly is potassium bromate? Potassium bromate is an oxidizing agent that is found in the form of white crystals or powder. It is used as a flour improver / treatment agent to hold the bread together and give it is soft, elastic texture. It allows the dough to be kneaded easily and bleaches the dough so the bread looks white. Once the bread is baked ideally it should not contain any potassium bromate or it should be within negligible limits. Potassium bromate is found in larger quantities if bromate added flour isn’t baked long enough or at a temperature that is high enough to remove it or if too much potassium bromate is added in the first place.
Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) regulations allow the use of potassium bromate and standards say that “if maida is used for bakery purposes then the following flour treatment agents can be used in the quantities mentioned which for Potassium bromate is (Max) 20ppm (parts per million). Residue of bromate in bread can be up to 50ppm. However, many countries have banned the use of potassium bromate as a flour treatment agent when in 1999 the Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found that the chemical additive caused tumours of the kidney, abdominal lining and thyroid cancer in animals and termed them as possibly carcinogenic for humans. The FSSAI has now declared that that it would ban the use of potassium bromate as an additive in bread.
The publication of the CSE report has also caused a furore among commercial bread manufacturers and they along with quick service restaurants denied the use of the potassium bromate in their products. The All India Bread Manufacturers’ Association (AIBMA) declared that they would use other oxidants if consumers are not happy with the use of potassium bromate even though when used carefully within permitted limits, it only enhances the quality of bread. After a drop in sale of bread some manufacturers have resorted to declaring on their labels that their bread is and has always been free of potassium bromate. This again could lead to more regulatory hassles if bromate is found in their bread from other sources like water which could contain potassium bromate or due to naturally occurring bromate.
Potassium bromate can be formed in groundwater especially if the water is saline and if found in water, it is termed a contaminant. In drinking water bromate can be formed when it undergoes treatment to disinfect it from contaminants, like ozone treatment. The ozone reacts with bromide found naturally in water to form potassium bromate depending upon the treatment reaction conditions. Bromate can also be introduced into drinking water from chlorine used for disinfection. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in its report has stated that increased risk from drinking water every day poses some amount of risk of cancer. FSSAI has recently proposed standards for drinking water prescribing the limit of bromate to be 0.01 ppm. Since a number of bread manufacturers have denied the use the potassium bromate in the bread then it is important to test if the possible source of bromate in bread is actually from untested water or due to the oxidation of bromide during processing.
Consumers are still confused whether to eat bread or not. It seems that the risk of cancer or kidney problems comes only from ingesting very large amounts of bromate which is many times higher than what has been found in bread. The AIBMA has pointed that the US food regulator FDA has not banned the use of these chemicals as they are considered to be safe when used within permitted limits. Moreover, levels of potassium bromate or potassium iodate residues found in the samples of bread tested by CSE was in the range of 1.15 –22.54 ppm, but not all the samples were found with a high range. In my opinion, the consumers should not panic as there is no harm if potassium bromate is found present in bread at low levels due to natural occurrence or residual effect but not as an additive. It is very good initiative that FSSAI has banned the use of bromate however naturally occurring bromate or bromate produced during the processing could be detected at very low levels but it should not be a food safety concern for the consumer.