There are thousands upon thousands of chemicals in the foods we eat. This sounds alarming until you realize that everything is made of chemicals, including yourself. Some chemicals are, however, added to foods for various effects. These are called food additives.
It is very easy to incite an emotional response by highlighting one food additive while ignoring everything else and failing to actually understand the context in which a chemical is used. Few people understand that most fruits and vegetables contain naturally occurring toxins or carcinogens that are themselves produced by the plant. I’ve highlighted the apple, a poisonous chemical cocktail (don’t worry!) to explain this.
You may also want to read about how we know which food chemicals are dangerous.
I’ll single out one chemical food additive to make an example, here: azodicarbonamide.
Azodicarbonamide, Yoga Mats, Subway, & McRibbs
Azodicarbonamide is a chemical made famous in the United States by Van Hari aka The Food Babe as “the chemical in yoga mats” as well as rubber shoes. It is used as a foaming agent to help in making certain kinds of plastics. It is also used widely in the baking industry as a dough conditioner. Van Hari started the attack on this as used in food, zeroing in on Subway rolls and causing the company to stop using the compound. The McDonald’s “McRib” has also been specifically named. To be clear, although Van Hari, who attacks large well-known brands and relies on the Goliath Effect to create a stir, focused on Subway, in particular, azodicarbonamide is used in hundreds of food products.
A lot was made of the fact that when a truck carrying a load of this chemical overturned, it was treated as a toxic spill. Oh, my! This can’t possibly be something you’d want in food! Here is what I want you to understand. Even if this compound used as a food additive is a concern, the fact that it is used in yoga mats or other plastic products has not one thing to do with it!
The way azodicarbonamide is used in dough and the way it is used in plastics are different and what happens to the chemical is therefore different. The idea that when you eat Subway sandwiches or many other breads you are basically eating yoga mats sounds terrible, but it is also completely inaccurate and quite ludicrous. This isn’t science, nor scientific. It is fear-mongering and emotional manipulation.
Use in Plastics
Azodicarbonamide, when heated, releases gassy bubbles like nitrogen, carbon dioxide, etc. So, adding it to vinyl helps to make nice springy foam rubber mats.
One scare relating to this chemical occurred in 2003. Not in regards to regards to its use IN food but in food contacting containers. At this time a baby food company was monitoring it’s products for prohibited chemicals, namely nitrofurazone, which is a veterinary antibiotic prohibited in European foods. The company found traces of semicarbazide (SEM), which they thought to be a metabolite of nitrofurazone, thus indicating its presence. They found that it came from the breakdown of azodicarbonamide.
The chemical was not used in the baby food, but in the plastic gaskets inside the lids used on the glass jars. When the product was heat treated, the azodicarbonamide broke down. Many baby food jars all over the world were affected by this discovery.
Although the industry reported its intention to find alternative foaming agents to the European Commission, a risk assessment study was launched by EFSA, finding that the risk to consumers was very small. SEM was considered a weak carcinogen in mice and had very low genotoxic activity. Regardless, the EFSA recommended that it be removed from baby foods when the technology existed to do so. Later, in 2005, the European Commission banned the use of azodicarbonamide in food contact materials but gave the food industry time to find other means. At this time, in the EU, it is also banned from food use. 1 2 note] Barnes, Karen A., et al. Chemical Migration and Food Contact Materials. CRC Press, 2007.[/note]
Use in Bakery Products
None of this has much to do with the chemical used a dough conditioner, a process which was patented as far back as 1959. When used in dough, it takes the place of flour aging, basically working as an oxidizing agent. It’s action is similar to the use of iodate but much faster, occurring two to three minutes after moisture is added to the flour and the dough is mixed. It shortens mixing times and helps make a stronger more rubber dough which can absorb a lot of moisture. 3 4
The end result is a lighter more voluminous bread. When azodicarbonamide reacts with flour, it is rapidly converted to another compound called biurea, a compound used to make it in the first place. This compound, when consumed, is rapidly eliminated from the body through excretion. 5
Although Europe and other countries banned its use in foods, the USA, UK and New Zealand do not. What is important to understand here is that the chemical as used in yoga mats and other plastics has nothing to do with its use in doughs, as the fate of the compound differs greatly. Either way, the health concern is very small and certainly not a special concern as opposed to the thousands of chemical compounds found in the foods we eat.
Yet, this is one of the dozens of chemicals used to convince consumers to buy only organic foods.
As soon as people hear “cancer” or “yoga matt” or “anti-freeze” they stop thinking and proceed solely via an emotional response. This heightened emotional state makes them disregard other sources of evidence and information. Although the WHO (World Health Organization), which is quick to label almost anything you can imagine a cancer-bomb, concerns itself with environmental levels of azodicarbonamide due to industrial use as a blowing agent in the rubber and plastics industry. Although there is little evidence of the chemical’s environmental fate or common exposure levels, in regards to toxicity studies, WHO has this to say:
“Concerning kinetics and metabolism, limited animal studies of exposures via inhalation and ingestion indicate that substantial quantities remain unabsorbed and are rapidly eliminated in the feces. Studies further suggest that most systemic exposure is to the breakdown product, biurea, and not to the parent compound. Toxicity studies conducted in experimental mammals demonstrate low acute toxicity and no irritation of skin, eye, or respiratory tract. Although azodicarbonamide was found to be a mutagen in bacterial systems, the report found no evidence that this effect would occur in vivo. No adequate studies of carcinogenicity and reproductive toxicity, in animals or in humans, could be identified. Case reports and epidemiological studies in humans have produced abundant evidence that azodicarbonamide can induce asthma, other respiratory symptoms, and skin sensitization in exposed workers. Adverse effects on other systems have not been studied.” 6
This is the same organization which stated that the presences of SEM in foods is “particularly undesirable.” 7 Here, we can begin to understand the difference between concern about the potential presence of a chemical in foods and actual occurrence of exposure to this or other breakdown products. We can be worried about exposure to certain products but this does not mean we are actually being exposed to it in high enough levels to create a danger.
What this should tell you is that, unless you are a worker exposed to high levels of the chemical used in industry, there is no evidence that you should be worried about exposure from food, water, or the environment, at least at this time. Food alarmists and fear-mongers such as Food Babe routinely ignore the actual safety data. Any “chemical” simply must be eliminated from our food! This would, of course, eliminate all food. But, you should consider something the next time you encounter information about a scary food chemical that is also present in some inedible product: A person who ignores evidence of safety is also likely to ignore evidence of danger. In other words, they ignore evidence. While you are busy worrying about imaginary dangers in your food, you may not be informed about more common and very real hazards, such as failing to be aware of common food-safety concerns.
- Motarjemi, Yasmine, and Huub Lelieveld. Food Safety Management: a Practical Guide for the the Food Industry. Academic Press, 2014.
- Brimer, Leon. Chemical Food Safety. CABI, 2011.
- Stauffer, Clyde E. Functional Additives for Bakery Foods. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1991.
- Cauvain, Stanley P. Bread Making: Improving Quality. CRC Press, 2003.
- Edwards, William P., and W. P Edwards. Science of Bakery Products. Royal Society of Chemistry, 2007.
- Cary, R., et al. Concise International Chemical Assessment Document 16 – AZODICARBONAMIDE. WHO, 1999, Concise International Chemical Assessment Document 16 – AZODICARBONAMIDE, www.who.int/ipcs/publications/cicad/en/cicad16.pdf.
- Lawley, Richard, et al. The Food Safety Hazard Guidebook. RSC Pub., 2012.