Since it was first patented for use in 1914, potassium bromate has been the bee's knees for bread makers. When added to flour, it strengthens the dough, allows for the bread to rise higher, and speeds up the entire process. That last bit is particularly vital, especially for industrial breadmaking.
Unfortunately, the use of potassium bromate is not without adverse effects. Namely, the fact that it's been found to cause cancer in lab rats. The scariest part is that even though the food additive is still allowed in the U.S. today, the cancer link was discovered nearly 35 years ago.
So, what's going on here?
The warning about potassium bromate in food was first sounded by Japanese researchers in 1982, who found that it causes cancer in the thyroids and kidneys of lab rats. The result led the International Agency for Research on Cancer to list it as a category 2B carcinogen as "possibly carcinogen to humans." Because of this, the substance was banned in a number of countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Nigeria, South Korea, Peru, Sri Lanka, China, and the European Union.
However, it's still allowed in the U.S.
This mostly has to do with a technicality. See, the Delaney Clause in the Food Additives Amendment of 1958 stated that "any chemical additive found to induce cancer in man, or, after tests, found to induce cancer in animals" would be restricted by the FDA. The approval of potassium bromate, however, occurred before the clause of 1958, therefore grandfathered in. There have been subsequent attempts to limit its usage -- in 1991, the FDA officially urged bakers not to use potassium bromate; in California, food containing potassium is required to have a warning label -- but it's still used quite a bit.
The latest group to sound the warning bell is the advocacy organization, Environment Working Group. A few weeks ago, they released an analysis that discovered the "possible cancer-causing food additive" in 86 breads and other baked goods for sale throughout the country. Here's the full list. (The report was released in conjunction with their "dirty dozen" food additives, highlighting each of the 12 additives to give a better glimpse of why they're so bad; potassium bromate is second up.)
However, this list of 86 foods is hardly exhaustive. The analysis was done using a relatively simple comparative program, looking for the use of "potassium bromate" in EWG's database of packaged foods, which includes over 80,000 currently. However large that number may seem, it's merely a fraction of the foods being produced throughout the country.
"It is not the entire food landscape," said Jose Aguayo, one of the report's authors. "There may be products out there that are not captured by our database. Whether small, local bakeries use it as well, we cannot be sure, simply because their products don't contain ingredient lists on their packaging."
So, what can consumers do? First, head over to the aforelinked list and make sure you steer clear from those items. Second, if you're getting bread from local mom-and-pop shops, ask them if they use potassium bromate. And third, if you happen to be reading this within the borders of California, keep an eye out for those warning labels. EWG has also put together a petition that urges manufacturers to cease using potassium bromate. So, take a minute to sign that.
There's really no good reason this hasn't been banned yet. "Other countries don't use it at all and they're doing just fine," said Aguayo. "There are alternatives out there that are being used, and we should use them."
It's time for the FDA to finally take the step that so many other nations around the world have already taken: Ban potassium bromate in food.
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