A Possible Carcinogen Is Still Lurking in America’s Bread

Countries around the world have banned potassium bromate—why hasn’t the U.S.?

(Photo: Flickr)

Oct 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could simply assume that the bread and other baked goods you buy were free of an additive that scientific research has repeatedly linked to cancer?

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group is sounding the alarm about potassium bromate—or, to be more accurate, re-sounding the alarm. The additive, which is added to flour to accelerate the mixing process as well as produce stronger dough and make bread whiter, was first fingered as a possible carcinogen way back in the early 1980s. Since then, its use has been banned in countries around the world, including the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada, Brazil, and China.

But here in the United States, commercial baked goods made with “bromated flour” continue to be sold with impunity. To anyone familiar with the generally pro-industry ditherings of the Food and Drug Administration, it will probably come as no surprise that the agency has taken a more or less hands-off approach. It argues that, when used correctly (yep, be suspicious of that), most potassium bromate converts into harmless potassium bromide during the baking process. As such, the agency has long declined to prohibit the use of potassium bromate and instead called on food makers to voluntarily stop using it.

As with a host of other potentially dangerous food additives, not to mention the rampant overuse of antibiotics on factory farms, the FDA’s laissez-faire approach to potassium bromate once again puts the onus on the consumer to avoid something that the agency should have taken action on a long time ago—in this case, a chemical additive that’s been linked to the growth of malignant tumors in lab animals and has been shown to damage the DNA of human cells.

The FDA and its supporters in the industrial food lobby would no doubt argue that the agency’s voluntary approach is working. To be sure, while the Environmental Working Group’s list of dozens of commercial products that contain potassium bromate includes items made by such notable names as Hormel and Goya, most are relatively obscure—e.g., Pao Ge Milho Apple Cake?—an indication that the biggest food makers have responded to the bad press potassium bromate has accrued lo these past decades and dropped it.

More may soon follow suit as consumers grow ever more suspicious of artificial ingredients. Like a number of restaurant chains recently, Panera has pledged to phase out the use of a host of artificial ingredients over the next few years, and the chain lists potassium bromate on its “No-No List” as an ingredient not in products the chain sells. Whole Foods also has the potential carcinogen on its list of unacceptable ingredients. Even fast-food chains McDonald’s, Subway, Pizza Hut, and Domino’s don’t appear to use potassium bromate in their sandwich buns or pizza dough.

But what’s insidious about potassium bromate is where else it could be lurking. While food makers may have grown increasingly wary of putting products with potassium bromate or bromated flour on the ingredient list on the shelf, they appear to have fewer qualms about selling such flour on the commercial level. On its commercial website, General Mills features an alarming number of bromated flours devoted to supplying bakeries and other businesses—meaning that while your Pizza Hut pie may not have potassium bromate in the crust, the hoagie rolls you buy from the bakery at your local supermarket might. California is the only state where foods that contain potassium bromate must carry a warning label; If you live in another state, it’s up to you to ask about it.

Or you could always move to China.