Bread only requires four ingredients: yeast, salt, flour, and water. So, why are there often way more than four ingredients listed on the packaging in which bread comes? Why do these ingredients mostly have long, difficult-to-pronounce names? These “extra” ingredients in bread (or rather processed bread, to be more specific) and other (processed) foods are additives.
Food additives have a variety of purposes: they add flavor, add color, and give food a nice texture. They also speed up the time it takes to make the food. Less time per food item equals more of it being made and also a lower cost per item. Obviously, these factors save companies money. So from a food production perspective, additives seem great. They make customers want the food (who will then spend their money on it), and they make food cheaper to make.
However, when thinking about the health of the people who eat them (us), they may not be so great. Dozens of additives have come under fire for potential links to health problems such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, and cancer. Few food additives have fallen under as much controversy as potassium bromate.
Potassium bromate (aka bromic acid and potassium salt) is an oxidizing agent used during the malting of barley. It is also a binding agent or so-called “flour improver” in bread. This additive is added to baking flours to improve the texture of the bread, to make it fluffier, and to shorten its rising time. It is also important in creating brewer’s malt, which is used in malt beverages such as beer and distilled spirits like vodka and whisky.
Potassium bromate has long been a subject of concern because of its link to health problems, especially cancer, in humans and animals. In a 1990 study by Yuji Kurokawa et. al., animals fed a diet of bread baked with a potassium bromate additive developed cancers. Based on this and earlier studies, it has been listed as Known to the State of California to Cause Cancer in 2001.
But potassium bromate is still not banned in California. It only needs a warning label saying it has carcinogenic properties when used in foods.
Potassium bromate has been banned in the United Kingdom since 1990 and Canada since 1994. Outside of the Western world, China banned it in 2005 and India banned it on June 20th of this year.
There are barely any requirements limiting the use of the additive in the United States outside of California. The FDA has only encouraged companies to reduce their use of the additive since 1991. They still suggest that the compound is safe in concentrations of 75 parts per million in bread, bread flour, and brewer’s malt and in concentrations of 25 parts per million in fermented malt drinks. (The FDA has not come up with a specific maximum concentration in distilled spirits because it is supposedly removed from malt during distillation.)
In bread, potassium bromate has to be listed as an ingredient unless its concentration is under 75 parts per million. This means that we as consumers are consuming small amounts of this possible carcinogen without even knowing it!
Brewer’s malt must say it has potassium bromate in it if it does. But since beer does not require an ingredient list, consumers may also not know of its presence, just like we do not know about it being in some breads.
Is potassium bromate really necessary? Or are there other ways to make comparable bread without using this additive? Just think about the United Kingdom and Canada and China and practically the rest of the world and it is easy to see that the answer to the second question is “yes.” Equally fluffy and tasty bread can be made with flour that does not contain potassium bromate.
Once bakeries and companies switch to flour free of this additive, only two simple changes have to be made to their recipe: mix the dough longer and lower the initial water temperature. It is that simple.
True, longer mixing times means that it will take longer to make the bread. This could potentially lead to fewer loaves being made. And it could increase the cost it takes to make it and its overall price. But these costs are insignificant when the benefits of removing and banning potassium bromate are taken into account.
What are a few extra minutes or a few extra cents per loaf when these steps can save us from developing cancer? Our lives are far more important than a few pennies.