Home >politics >policy >Six things to know about potassium bromate in bread

Hyderabad: Cancer-causing bread? The latest study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has created a flutter over its claim that many bread, burger and pizza samples it tested contained potassium bromate which is possibly carcinogenic and potassium iodate which could cause thyroid-related problems.

Soon after the study was released, the national food safety regulator removed potassium bromate from the list of permitted additives and said it is examining the evidence against potassium iodate. Union health minister J.P. Nadda called for an investigation and asked people not to panic.

What exactly is potassium bromate? Here are six things to know about the food additive:

Use

Potassium bromate, or simply called bromate, is an oxidiser used to strengthen dough and enhance its elasticity. This helps bake uniform and whitened bread. Typically 15-30 parts per million (ppm) of potassium bromate is added to dough. Normally, baking changes its chemical composition and renders it harmless, leaving no trace in the finished product. However, if too much of the additive is used, or the bread is not baked long enough or at a high enough temperature, then a residual amount will remain.

Popularity

Potassium bromate is cheaper and more widely available than other food additives, and gives a better end-product. In a low-margin, high-volume and perishable food product like bread, cost and end-product does matter.

Harm

In 1964, an expert committee administered by the World Health Organisation and Food and Agriculture Organization started evaluating potassium bromate. In 1983, it temporarily accepted a limit of 75 ppm provided there are negligible residues in the end product, on the understanding that all bromate gets converted into bromide during baking. This limit was later reduced to 60 ppm. After long-term studies, potassium bromate was considered a ‘genotoxic carcinogen’. In 1992, the committee decided that using potassium bromate as a flour treatment agent was “not appropriate", also considering there were alternatives. In 1999, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified potassium bromate as possibly carcinogenic to humans. In 2012, the Codex Alimentarius, an international food safety reference agency run by the WHO and FAO, formally withdrew specifications of potassium bromate in line with the expert committee view.

Ban

The European Union, China, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Peru and Columbia have banned the use of potassium bromate as a flour treatment agent. The EU has banned potassium iodate as well. India and the US continue to allow use of potassium bromate in permissible limits. India allows use of potassium bromate and/or iodate up to 50 ppm on flour mass basis, while the US allows it up to 75 ppm and manufacturers must list the ingredient on food labels. However, the US officially urges bakers not to use potassium bromate; in California, food containing potassium is required to have a warning label. Many US bread and bakery manufacturers have voluntarily stopped using it.

Alternatives

Ascorbic acid or Vitamin-C is considered a healthy alternative to potassium bromate. Glucose oxidase is another option approved by FSSAI in 2015. Other food improvers and flour treatment agents approved by law include ammonium persulphate, ammonium chloride and amylases.

Industry version

Industry lobby group Assocham said the CSE report has caused a panic and slump in sale of bread and bakery products. It said the use of bromate was with permission and full knowledge of the food regulator. If at all a problem is detected, the first contact point for the organisations should be government agencies and regulators, Assocham said. Assocham also drew attention to the case of Maggi Noodles, which was banned last year after the regulator said it found unacceptable levels of lead in it. The ban was reversed later after a court order.

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