Potassium bromate has been identified as “potential human carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer — and it’s also recently been found to be in at least 86 baked goods and products that you can find in the grocery store. (Photo: Alamy)
The bread you buy at the grocery store may include an additive that’s been linked to cancer, new findings reveal.
The report, which comes courtesy of environmental research and advocacy organization Environmental Working Group, shows that potassium bromate is used in at least 86 baked goods and other products commonly sold in supermarkets.
Among the products that contain it: Hormel Foods breakfast sandwiches, Goya turnover pastry dough, and Weis Kaiser rolls. See the full list of products here.
When reached for comment, a representative for Hormel tells Yahoo Health that the products listed in the EWG report “were discontinued over 18 months ago,” were part of a limited distribution test market in three cities, and are no longer on shelves. "Providing consumers with safe products is the No. 1 priority at Hormel Foods,“ the representative said. "All ingredients in our products are used at levels approved by government agencies and regulations.”
Joe Perez, senior vice president of Goya Foods, tells Yahoo Health that his company has removed potassium bromate from all of its products, including the Goya Dough for Turnover Pastries, which was flagged by EWG. “However, it is possible that some of our old packaging may still state potassium bromate as an ingredient,” he says. “We have been working with our suppliers to change all of our packaging with the most up to date product information.”
The Environmental Working Group tells Yahoo Health that products included in its report are kept in the EWG database for two years after their label information is recorded, and products with label information recorded more than a year earlier are noted as such. Manufacturers can contact the EWG regarding old or outdated products.
Potassium bromate is added to flour to strengthen the dough, help it to rise higher, and give the bread a white color. But it has also been identified as a “potential human carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and is listed as “possibly carcinogenic” by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Various lab tests on animals found that potassium bromate caused significant increases in kidney, thyroid, and other cancers in animals. A 2011 study published in the journal Chemico-Biological Interactions also found it can damage DNA and cause oxidative stress in humans.
While it’s uncertain how much potassium bromate a person would have to consume to experience negative health consequences, the Food and Drug Administration has placed a limit of 75 parts per million in food products.
Potassium bromate has been banned as a food additive by the European Union, U.K., Canada, and Brazil. The state of California also requires that foods that contain potassium bromate have a warning label.
Jose Aguayo, a database analyst for EWG who worked on the report, tells Yahoo Health that there may be other breads that contain potassium bromate as well — they just haven’t found them yet.
“It’s a concern,” Mike Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, who was not involved in the EWG report, tells Yahoo Health. While the FDA hasn’t banned it outright, he says the organization has “urged bakers to voluntarily stop using it.”
Clearly some haven’t. California-based registered dietitian nutritionist Sonya Angelone, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who was not involved in the EWG report, tells Yahoo Health that she’s surprised it’s even used anymore — especially since there’s no reason for bakers to continue to use it. “It isn’t essential in baking, and there are other substances that can be used in its place that may be safer long term,” she says. Ascorbic acid is an alternative to potassium bromate, for instance.
Jack Jacoub, MD, medical oncologist and director of thoracic oncology at California’s Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center who was not involved in the EWG report, tells Yahoo Health that people should be concerned about the findings. “Unquestionably, there is a component of the environment that interacts with a person’s genes that leads to cancer,” he says. “The diet is a part of that, so why would you want to take a chance?”
Jacoub says it’s especially concerning that potassium bromate was found to cause oxidative stress in animal studies as well as DNA damage. “That’s a fairly consistent cancer-causing activity,” he says. “It’s actually a really concerning substance to find in people’s food, especially when there is an alternative.”
Luckily, potassium bromate isn’t just slipped into products undetected: It should appear on the ingredients list. (Aguayo says it’s difficult to say whether breads purchased from your local baker contain potassium bromate, but you should ask.)
While the number of bread products that contain potassium bromate is relatively small compared to all of the bread products available on shelves, Aguayo says it should be zero: “Other countries have made products without potassium bromate and they’re doing fine.”
“Don’t buy these kinds of breads,” urges Jacoub. “If you have an alternative, why subject yourself to this? I mean, speaking as a cancer doctor…”
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