How You’re Eating ‘Yoga Mat’ Plastic in the Comfort of Your Kitchen
Yoga mat sandwiches aren’t just available at Subway — food products stocked in your cupboards may contain the controversial chemical as well. The use of azodicarbonamide (ADA) is widespread by the food industry as a recent report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) shows. It analyzed ingredients in grocery store items, and ADA popped up nearly 500 times.
The ADA spotlight started to shine when the creator of FoodBabe.com, Vani Hari, started a campaign to get Subway to remove the chemical from its breads. Hari stated in a post she targeted Subway because she was tired of the chain passing itself off as “healthy” and “fresh” when it was using chemicals in its bread.
“ADA is just one example of an American food supply awash in chemical additives that can be mixed into foods with little oversight or safety review,” David Andrews, Ph.D., EWG senior scientist said in a press release. “Americans have regularly eaten this chemical along with hundreds of other questionable food additives for years. That is why we are putting together an online database that will enable consumers to make more informed decisions about the foods they eat and feed to their family.”
EWG explains that ADA is a synthetic substance used to create small bubbles in order to make strong, but light materials — like yoga mats and flip flops. It took on a new role in 1956 when an engineering and pharmaceutical firm in New Jersey realized it could be used as a “dough conditioner.” Adding it to the bread making process caused bread to rise higher, stay softer, and resulted in a more visually appealing product. The report specifies that the firm discovered the new bread was “light, soft, and suitably moist, yet suitably firm or resilient, and that [had] crusts and internal properties of a pleasing and palatable nature.”
But this is only the half of why ADA has become prevalent in bread products. John Coupland Ph.D., Professor of Food Science and the Chair of the Ingredients as Materials Impact Group at Penn State took to his blog, Chemicals in My Food, to explain what ADA had to do with food. ADA is a dough improver, he states. There are alternatives to this process, but ADA lets a higher quality dough be made from cheaper flour.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved its use in food in 1962, but it did not become a preferred method of bread makers until the 1990s. The FDA stipulates it is permissible as long as the amount present does not exceed 45 parts per million. Health Canada requires the same levels for ADA to be used as a food additive, and following the media fervor over Subway stated it had no plans to call for the ingredient to be removed.
The World Health Organization compiled a report on ADA. It explains that the main use of the compound is in the rubber and plastics industry as a blowing agent. It noted that previously, the UK had used it in the bread making process, but this was no longer permitted, and that it is not used in the European Union. The toxicity of ADA is relatively untested and unknown. There are cases where workers from the plastics industry allege working with ADA brought on asthma, and there were also reports that it irritated skin and eyes. “Azodicarbonamide is of low acute toxicity, but repeated or prolonged contact may cause asthma and skin sensitization,” the report concluded.
Even though ADA is approved for use in the U.S. and Canada, and test yielded inconclusive results about health effects, spurred by the online petition, Subway agreed to remove ADA from its bread. When announcing the decision, Subway said it had been in the process of eliminating the chemical prior to being called out for using ADA. It isn’t alone in phasing out the ingredient. Nature’s Own, a bread baking company, was originally named in the EWG’s report; however, it reached out to the organization and public in general to state it had begun removing ADA in the fall of 2013, and is currently in the process of updating packaging to reflect this.
Coupland, in his blog, also reported that there is potential for health risk from the process and breakdown of ADA. But, the toxicity of the trace amounts of semicarbazide and urethane that occur when ADA breaks down in the dough is unknown. In an earlier post, he pointed out all of the attention in the media and online from this campaign may have more to do with people wondering what is in their food, and less about the potential health risk. The Center for Science in the Public Interest called attention to the fact that at the very least, the chemical is superfluous, and for that reason should be removed. Companies can — and often do — make bread without it.
“It’s unacceptable that major food companies are using an unnecessary and potentially harmful chemical in their products, when it’s clear they can make food without it,” Hari told the EWG. “These questionable additives are not supposed to be food or even eaten for that matter, but they do end up in the U.S. food supply and are consumed by millions of people, including children, every day.”