Bread in a chemical jam


“All sorrows are less with bread”- Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Really? Now we have to change this quote a bit and say all sorrows begin with bread? Recently Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) came out with a study pointing possible pres-ence of cancer causing chemical in bread.
CSE’s new study tests bread sold in Delhi. Finds residues of potassium bromate/iodate in commonly consumed varieties. Use of potassium bromate – classified as a category 2B carcinogen (possibly carcinogenic to humans) – is banned in most countries. But India still allows its use. Use of potassium iodate in making bread was also banned by many nations because it can contribute to thyroid -related diseases. CSE recommends that FSSAI should ban use of potassium bromate and potassium iodate with immediate effect and prevent their routine exposure to Indian population.
The study, conducted by CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory (PML), says Indian bread manufacturers use potassium bromate and potassium iodate for treating flour while making bread.
The PML tested 38 commonly avail-able branded varieties of pre-pack-aged breads, pav and buns, ready-to-eat burger bread and ready-to-eat pizza breads of popular fast food outlets from Delhi.
“We found 84% samples positive with potassium bromate/iodate. We re-confirmed the presence of potassium bromate/iodate in a few samples through an external third party laboratory. We checked labels and talked to industry and scientists. Our study confirms the widespread use of potassium bromate/iodate as well as presence of bromate/iodate residues in the final product,” says Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General, CSE and head of the CSE lab.
What has the world done on potassium bromate/iodate?
In 1999, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified potassium bromate as possibly carcinogenic (cancer causing) to humans. It was found to cause tumors of the kidney, thyroid and cancer of the abdominal lining in laboratory animals. Considering potassium bro-mate as a ‘genotoxic carcinogen’, the JECFA (WHO/FAO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives) in 1992 said that “use of potassium bromate as a flour treatment agent was not appropriate”. The EU had already banned its use in 1990 and so did the UK. Subsequently, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Nigeria, Peru and Columbia have also decided against its use. CODEX Alimentarius, an international body which sets safety standards for food commodities, formally withdrew specifications of potassium bromate in 2012 – which means the presence of bromate in food was considered unsafe and illegal for international trade.
“Globally, potassium bromate was al-lowed to be used on the assumption that the bromate residues would not be present in the end product. This assumption failed across the world. Residues were being detected even after reducing the allowed limits of use and therefore, countries started banning it. Our study confirms that residues of potassium bromate are present in bread sold in India,” Bhushan points out.
The food safety regulations of India allow use of potassium bromate as flour treatment agent in bread and other bakery products. Potassium bromate is a powerful oxidizing agent, use of which makes bread fluffy, soft and gives it a good finish. Under ideal baking conditions, bro-mate converts into bromide which is harmless. However, this does not seem to happen in practice. While there is not much labeling required on non-packaged fast foods, pre-packaged products have to dis-close the flour treatment agent used.
“Industry members and experts told us that potassium bromate is widely used as it is allowed by law and offers high quality finish to the final product. When CSE contacted companies whose products were found with potassium bromate or potassium iodate, six out of 12 came forward to deny use of these chemicals. Only one company was found to be labeling the use of potassium bromate,” says Amit Khurana, program manager, Food Safety and Toxins team at CSE.
What did the CSE test results show?
Nearly 84% (32/38) samples were found with potassium bromate/ iodate in the range of 1.15-22.54 parts per million (ppm). 79% (19/24) samples of packaged bread, all samples of white bread, pav, bun and ready-to-eat pizza bread and 75% (3/4) samples of ready-to-eat burger bread were positive.
High levels of potassium bromate/ iodate were found in sandwich bread, pav, bun and white bread. Products of Perfect Bread, Harvest Gold and Britannia were those with higher levels.
No residues were found in all four tested products of Defence Bakery (Whole Wheat Bread, Jumbo Slices Brown, Brown Bread, Multigrain), one out of four samples of English Oven (Sandwich Bread) and one out of two samples of Nirula’s (burger bread of Chatpata Aloo Burger).
Only one brand – Perfect Bread – labels use of potassium bromate. No maker among those tested labels potassium iodate. Only Britannia denied use of potassium bromate or iodate.
Products of all five popular multinational fast food outlets selling pizza and burger were found positive with potassium bromate/iodate. These include KFC, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Subway and McDonald’s. Except Domino’s, others have denied use in a response to CSE.
Samples of two other fast foods outlet – Nirula’s and Slice of Italy — also tested positive for potassium bro-mate/iodate. Slice of Italy denied use of the chemicals to CSE.
A regulatory loophole
It is time India banned the use of potassium bromate to safeguard public health, ensured necessary labeling norms and removed this chemical from food supply. “Bread and bakery products are an essential part of our daily diets today. Children are consuming them more than ever before. We need to prevent near-routine exposure of this possible cancer-causing chemical. There are safer alternatives present and cost of adopting those is insignificant. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) should ban the use of these chemicals with immediate effect”, says Bhushan.
CSE researchers say that the FSSAI should also prohibit the use of potassium iodate as a flour treatment agent. The JECFA recommended not using it as a flour treatment agent as its use in a staple like bread can possibly lead to higher intake of iodine. It is not an approved additive in the EU and countries such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand. The European Food Safety Agency, in its scientific opinion of 2014, mentions that chronic excessive iodine intake may accelerate the development of sub- clinical thyroid disorders to overt hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, increase the incidence of autoimmune thyroiditis and increase the risk of thyroid cancer.
“Iodine supplementation through salt has been adequate for Indians. Therefore, the use of potassium iodate in bread could lead to higher iodine intake in people who consume large quantities of bread,” says Bhushan.
What CSE recommends?
The FSSAI should ban the use of potassium bromate in making bread with immediate effect. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) should also amend relevant available standards. Use of potassium iodate as a flour treatment agent in breads should not be allowed by the FSSAI. The BIS should amend relevant available standards in this case as well. Meanwhile FSSAI has taken note of this study and on immediate effect it has banned use of potassium bromate in bread and said that it will evaluate use of potassium iodate in bread making.
Along with FSSAI, All India Bread Manufactures’ Association (AIBMA) in a press conference informed that in the next 2-3 days they would be withdrawing use of potassium bro-mate and potassium iodate in bread making. “We have heard what the bread making association has announced. We are happy that they have decided to stop using potassium bromate and potassium iodate within two-three days. This will re-duce public health risk from these chemicals,” says Bhushan. 


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