“Plastic chemical” in our bread? So what?


It’s a topsy-turvy world. Instead of basing food policy on science, we now have policy by petition. Subway has decided to remove azidocarbonamide from its baked goods in response to a petition organized by a lady who labels herself the “FoodBabe.” She’s the one who captured the attention of web surfers and the press with her campaign to have synthetic food dyes removed from Kraft Mac and Cheese. Energized by the media attention she garnered, Vani Hari is now on the warpath against azodicarbonamide, a chemical added to bread to improve texture, lengthen shelf live and add fluffiness. It seems that the nasty food industry is trying to poison us with yet another chemical, aided and abetted by the immoral FDA which, it is suggested, caters to corporate profits instead of to people’s health!
Is azodicarbonamide a necessary ingredient? No. Is it harmful? Not if you go by the scientific evidence. But if you go by the wisdom of the FoodBabe, who I suspect would have a difficult time pronouncing “azodicarbonamide, it should be piled on the scrap heap of malicious chemicals carelessly introduced into our food supply, alongside the nasty food dyes. Of course the fact that it has an unpronouncable name is the first strike against this chemical. Second strike is that it is used to make shoe soles and yoga mats. We are also told that the chemical has been shown to be toxic to animals and can cause asthma in humans. Strike three! Out!
Now for a dose of reality. First of all, dose matters. Azodicarbonamide is allowed in bread to the extent of 45 parts per million. That means a Subway sandwich has about 10 milligrams. There’s more rodent poop remnants and insect fragments in there. Of course we can’t dismiss risk just because the dose is so small. There are chemicals, botulin from the Botulinim clostridium bacterium for example, that are toxic at even lower doses. The reason we can dismiss 10 milligrams of azodicarbonamide, is that the toxicity of the compound has been extensively studied. Yes, it has shown toxicity in dogs when fed at levels of about 5-10% of their diet. The percent of the human diet this chemical makes up is so trivial that it cannot even be calculated. As far as the asthma connection goes, well, that refers to inhaling the powder in an occupational setting. It has absolutely nothing to do with the trace amounts in bread. And the fact that azidocarbonamide is used in the manufacture of some plastics and the soles of shoes? Another scientifically bankrupt argument. Salt is used to melt ice on the street. That doesn’t mean it is dangerous in food.
Then there is the tiresome tome about not wanting to eat anything that has a name that can’t be easily pronounced. A giveaway of scientific illiteracy. I suppose our charming “FoodBabe,” would want to stay far away from cyanocobalamine. Not only is it hard to pronounce but it has cyanide! But she would be robbing herself of vitamin B12. So what’s next on tap for the babe?? A petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide, a chemical used to formulate soft drinks? After all, it is an ingredient in many pesticides and drain cleaners. Oops..that’s been done!
Joe Schwarcz

15 Responses to ““Plastic chemical” in our bread? So what?”

  1. Grace Diaz says:

    Thanks so much for the article. The takeaway here I guess is that we should be aware of who we listen to, learn the substances that go with what we eat and find out how much we should eat a certain substance. . :)

    • jurg bangerter says:

      Spin doctors who aren’t really doctors such as Joe Schwarcz a Mc Gill PHD with a minor degree in chemistry attack persons like Jamie Oliver, Anthony Bourdain, and the Food Babe who warn people about the chemicals in Food and denigrate the messengers..Aspartame, GMO’s and Mc Dos are safe based on Joe Schwarcz a DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY …since when are unproven GMO’s products safe? They have never been proven scientifically to be..show me the study PHD Joe Blow Schwarcz you Monsanto paid science clown

  2. marek says:

    Dr. Joe Schwarcz, I’m not against chemistry, but if it does not provide any nutritional values like vitamins, minerals or amino acids why put it in there? I’m not in my 20′s and not too old, somewhere in between, but I remember those old days when I use to pick up a loaf of bread from a local bakery across the street. I still remember the small and fresh taste. Our family didn’t care how long it would last, because we knew we’d pick up a fresh batch the next morning, in fact we were looking forward to it,today’s bread chewy and gluey,clay like taste doesn’t even come close to the ‘old good days’.In my opinion, the factories with chemical engineering that had put small bakeries out of business had done more damage than good.I have given up all processed food, my next step is bake my own bread. Again, seeing a loaf of bread sitting on my countertop for weeks on end without getting any mold is not normal,no matter how determined you are to justify the ‘harmless’ chemicals being put into it I don’t buy it.Last but not least, even if azidocarbonamide by itself is not harmfull, we don’t know the side effects azidocarbonamide might have on our bodies combined with all the other chemicals being added to our food. I believe there is no studies or research papers being done in this regard.

  3. Joe Schwarcz says:

    No..I don’t think I overlooked…I looked into the issue very carefully and I don’t think there is an issue here. It is true that azidocarbonamide is not necessary..but that is not the issue. The point I was making is that just because a chemical may be used in plastic manufacture does not invalidate its use in food. I stand by my view that the Food Babe does not have a grasp on science and should not be pontificating on issues she does not understand.

  4. Joe,

    There are a couple things you have overlooked. 1) Subway for some reason believes that even in the minute amounts in the bread azodicarbonamide produces a some useful chemical interaction. Based on that, you can not simply dismiss that it has no effect when ingested. You need to ask is there an effect at that concentration — which could be drastically different from that at the much higher concentrations from dog studies. You also need ask the follow on questions about cumulative effects and interactions, and again, at the permitted level. 2) Certainly, the compound is not added in extremely small quantities, but at more easily measured quantities to larger batches. The question raised then is there any handling risk for the upstream “bakers”.

    Uninformed skepticism does not invalidate the question. As someone who has made bread, I have never once used azodicarbonamide or seen it in a recipe. As a label reader, I have never seen it on a loaf I have purchased. FoodBabe has every reason to question its use.

    Instead of addressing the actual food science of oxidizing agents in baking and the effects of biurea, you have attacked the person with the same type of argument you complain about (“it can’t be as bad as all the rat poop”). You cite the poorly implemented dog study results, but neglect the International Programme on Chemical Safety’s assessment: “The effects of long-term exposure to azodicarbonamide have not been well studied, and no conventional carcinogenicity studies are available.”

    Instead of the question “So What” (which Miles Davis asked so much better than Mr Schwarcz), I ask “Why so?” Asking this you may discover that you are doing something that never really mattered in the first place. Have Subway sales or bread sales in general plummeted across Europe which has banned this additive? Does the bread still rise?

  5. Joe Schwarcz says:

    In this field opinion has to be based on science. This is not politics. It is clear from her numerous discussions that she has no understanding of scientific methodology and certainly no understanding of chemistry. And food science as well as nutrition are just specialized fields of chemistry. Everything eventually comes down to molecular action.

  6. Aubrey Jon Erickson says:

    Isn’t the customer always right? What difference does it make if the customer’s request has no basis. As a baker and a reseller on Amazon (separate endeavors) I know that what the customer wants is what a business person wants to deliver to assure the success of one’s business and that one can make bread out of three ingredients plus yeast so why not provide what the customer wants?

  7. Moocs says:

    How to judge whether a synthetics can be metabolised in human body naturally? Though azide, carbon and amide all look fine but we are not supposed to do judgement before learning it from professional. Dose matters, so we care about the accumulation effect of intakes if there are toxic accumulation effects. Is this question stupid?

  8. Joe Schwarcz says:

    The ban in Europe and Australia is based upon occupational inhalation, not on safety when added to dough in minute quantities. There are far better reasons to limit the breads that azidocarbonamide is found in than its presence. These breads tend to be made of white flour which has a low fiber content and a high glycemic index. Teaching people about nutrition is the way to go not using ridiculous scare tactics like “do you eat yoga mats?” That brilliant revelation comes from the “FoodBabe.”

  9. Marek says:

    You forgot to mentioned that azidocarbonamide has been banned in UK EU and Australia because risks are still unclear. Unless you have a scientific proof please don’t claim that azidocarbonamide is safe. Actually cbc does better job explaining the issue. http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/subway-agrees-to-end-use-of-controversial-chemical-after-food-blogger-vani-hari-s-protest-1.2525447

    • Ben Musclow says:

      Exactly… who knows what azidocarbonamide might react with in interaction in the body when ingested? Has there been any studies on this? And what is with the ad hominem attack? While I am not thrilled with anyone calling themselves a “babe”, does Joe know the educational credentials of Mrs. Hari? Cyanocobalamin is the synthetic version of B12, not what is found in nature. I would assume that Vani would not consume this man-made imitation unless absolutely necessary. Whatever happened to getting real nutrients from real food?

      • Joe Schwarcz says:

        I do know her educational credentials…zip. Cyanocobalamin is always “natural.” No synthetic version is available. But if it were, it would be identical to the natural version.

        • Ben Musclow says:

          Vitamin B12 is cobalamin, and like other vitamins (vitamin C for instance) is normally found in a complex in the food it is apart of. Would love a reference that states that cyanocobalamin is found in nature…. While I am a proponent of orthomolecular medicine and Linus Pauling (a great chemist and scientist), I don’t follow that synthetic is the same as natural. Comparing man-made synthetic versions of vitamins to the vitamin complexes with cofactors in real food is like comparing processed cheese food products to cheese from raw milk from grass fed cows on organic pasture…

          • Ben Musclow says:

            As for her credentials (not that she needs to have a degree in food science for her research to be credible) is a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which she received in 2001 (linked-in reference). While I certainly respect Mr. Schwarcz’s accomplishments, he has a Ph.D in Chemistry, not Food Science or Nutrition Science. Does this invalidate his opinion on food additives? Of course not, but neither is Mrs. Hari’s opinion “nonsense” just because of her credentials…

    • Jenny C says:

      Thank you, Marek. I for one do not see why we feel the need to add synthetic anything to our food. Bread *should* mold if not eaten in 3-4 days. I won’t buy any that doesn’t any longer. I have several friends that have a horrible ‘gluten’ reactions, ranging from skin allergies, to vomiting, to severe stomach cramps, yet, if they purchase a local heirloom wheat that is processed in the back of a coffee shop, none of them have the same reaction to foods made with it. How can we not think that all of these unnecessary chemicals will not have some affect?

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