Almost 500 Foods Contain The 'Yoga Mat' Compound. Should We Care?

Mar 6, 2014
Originally published on March 10, 2014 10:55 am

That compound found in commercially baked bread — yep, the one that's in yoga mats, too — is in the news again.

A report from the Environmental Working Group finds that the compound, azodicarbonamide, is found in close to 500 food products, from Pillsbury Dinner Rolls to Little Debbie products to Wonder Bread.

As you may recall, the sandwich chain Subway got a lot of attention a few weeks back when it announced its plans to remove this compound — which is used to improve dough and maintain bread texture — from its bread.

And as we reported, the kerfuffle came in response to an online petition posted by the creator of the Food Babe blog. The online petition pointed to a range of possible health concerns linked to the compound — everything from asthma to cancer.

But what is the evidence behind these claims?

Let's start with asthma and other respiratory issues. The concerns about breathing problems stem from factory workers who have been exposed to high levels of azodicarbonamide. But it turns out, outside of this occupational exposure, there's no evidence that there's any risk at all to consumers.

It's good to "remind yourself to be more skeptical," says Justin Pagano, who has written that he'd like to see more scientific inquiry and reasoning used in these what's-really-in-your-food campaigns.

He says there's a "generational zeitgeist" among his fellow millennials to "take back food" from the control of large companies and demand transparency.

And he agrees that it is important to be asking questions about how the food we eat may influence our health. Even if the questions are tough to answer.

Take, for instance, the tricky business of interpreting toxicity. John Coupland, a food science professor at Penn State, has blogged about the complexities involved.

He explains that small amounts of two compounds, semicarbazide and urethane, are formed as azodicarbonamide breaks down during the baking process. And it's possible that these compounds may pose a risk.

"The real question is whether these tiny concentrations in bread are toxicologically significant," Coupland writes.

Groups such as the Environmental Working Group argue that since it's not essential and it could pose health risks, azodicarbonamide should be removed from the food supply.

"This is an unnecessary chemical that's added to bread," says EWG scientist David Andrews. And there are viable alternatives, such as ascorbic acid, which is a form of vitamin C.

But the FDA considers small amounts of azodicarbonamide to be safe. The agency long ago set an allowable level of 45 parts per million in dough.

And food scientist Kantha Shelke of Corvus Blue, who works as an independent consultant to the food industry, says this is reasonable. After all, it's the dose that makes the poison. And "45 parts per million is very, very, very small," she says.

But in an era when social media can whip up a frenzy of concern, food companies are becoming quick to respond to get ahead of bad publicity — regardless of the science.

"No [food company or chain] wants to be associated with anything that can be remotely considered harmful," Shelke says.

Which may explain why, in the wake of Subway's announcement, several more manufacturers have also decided to drop azodicarbonamide from their products.

For instance, bread maker Nature's Own noted that it has already phased out the compound from its bread products.

And intuitively, it just feels better to know that a compound used to make yoga mats is being removed from breads.

But maybe I'm just being closed-minded here.

For a different perspective, I reached out to bakery industry consultant Theresa Cogswell. She pointed out that "there are many things used in industrial uses" that cross over into food use as well.

"And the assumption that it's bad for you," she says, is just not accurate.

Take, for instance, sheet rock, or gypsum. It contains calcium sulfate, which is also used as a food additive. In fact, it's used to make tofu.

Hmmm. A vegan favorite contains the same compound that's used to make drywall. Who knew?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

A few weeks back, the sandwich chain Subway got a lot of attention when it announced its plans to remove a food additive from its bread. The announcement was, in part, a response to an online petition that pointed out this same additive was used in, of all things, the manufacture of yoga mats. The story went viral and since then, as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, it just won't go away.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: So the food additive under the spotlight is called azodicarbonamide. It's found in hundreds of baked goods, from Pillsbury Dinner Rolls to Wonder Bread. Commercial bakers love it because it helps keep bread a nice, spongy texture; just as it keeps your yoga mat cushiony. And according to the creator of the blog Food Babe, the yoga mat association is just one concern. Her online petition pointed to links to respiratory problems, asthma, possibly even cancer. And given this list, who wouldn't be concerned?

Twenty-something Justin Pagano, who came across the petition just as the news of it was going viral, says there was definitely a knee-jerk reaction.

JUSTIN PAGANO: Yes, yes, I'll sign your petition. Sign me up right away. This just sounds so terrible.

AUBREY: But Justin says he was skeptical. If this food additive was so bad, he wanted to see the evidence. As a science major in college, he knew his way around scholarly publications. So he decided to do some digging.

PAGANO: I said, you know, do I know anything about this compound? Have I read about it before? And I just started picking it apart.

AUBREY: And this is what he found: Despite the fact that azodicarbonamide is not approved for use in European countries, there are no studies showing it causes asthma in people who eat bread made with it. The reports about breathing problems came from factory workers who have breathed in high levels of the compound.

He also looked for evidence that azodicarbonamide, or its breakdown products, relate to cancer. He says he found a few studies. Mice were exposed to high doses, nothing close to the tiny exposures people get from bread. Now, Justin has no connection to the bread industry. He just considers himself a kind of concerned citizen scientist. And his conclusion?

PAGANO: It's really hard to say, or conclude, that this is bad for you.

AUBREY: And the Food and Drug Administration seems to agree. They reviewed the evidence on this compound years ago, and decided that small amounts in bread were fine. They set a limit of 45 parts per million, and food scientist Kantha Shelke says this makes sense.

KANTHA SHELKE: Forty-five parts per million is very, very, very small. So azodicarbonamide should not be that scary.

AUBREY: But doesn't it just feel wrong that an ingredient found in our bread is also used to make our yoga mats and other, plastic stuff? That's what set off so many headlines. But food scientists say, wait a minute. Think about Sheetrock or drywall. It contains calcium sulfate, or gypsum, which is also used as a food additive. In fact, it's used to make tofu.

So ingredients do cross over, and that doesn't mean they're dangerous. But Kantha Shelke says in an era when social media can whip up a frenzy of concern, regardless of the science, food companies are becoming quick to act.

SHELKE: Nobody wants to be associated with anything that can be remotely considered harmful.

AUBREY: And this explains why: In the wake of Subway's announcement to yank the compound from its bread, other manufacturers have done the same. David Andrews, a scientist with the Environmental Working Group, argues it's the right move.

DAVID ANDREWS: Really, this is an unnecessary chemical that's added to bread.

AUBREY: And as bread manufacturers in Europe already know, there are viable alternatives. One option is ascorbic acid, a form of vitamin C.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.