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By Nalini Sahu

Bhubaneswar/New Delhi, May 24: One of urban India’s staple food products – the bread that we buy off the shelves every day – could be laced with toxic chemicals which are serious health hazards, finds a new study done in Delhi by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

The study, conducted by CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory (PML), says Indian bread manufacturers use potassium bromate and potassium iodate for treating flour while making bread. The use of these chemicals in the bread-making sector has been banned in many countries because they are listed as hazardous for public health: one is a category 2B carcinogen (possibly carcinogenic to humans) and the other could trigger thyroid disorders. India does not ban their use.

The PML tested 38 commonly available branded varieties of pre-packaged breads, pav and buns, ready-to-eat burger bread and ready-to-eat pizza breads of popular fast food outlets from Delhi. “We found 84 per cent samples positive with potassium bromate/iodate. We re-confirmed the presence of potassium bromate/iodate in a few samples through an external third-party laboratory. We checked labels and talked to industry and scientists. Our study confirms the widespread use of potassium bromate/iodate as well as presence of bromate/iodate residues in the final product,” says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general, CSE and head of the CSE lab.

What has the world done on potassium bromate/iodate?

In 1999, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified potassium bromate as possibly carcinogenic (cancer causing) to humans. It was found to cause tumors of the kidney, thyroid and cancer of the abdominal lining in laboratory animals. Considering potassium bromate as a ‘genotoxic carcinogen’, the JECFA (WHO/FAO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives) in 1992 said that “use of potassium bromate as a flour treatment agent was not appropriate”. The EU had already banned its use in 1990 and so did the UK. Subsequently, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Nigeria, Peru and Columbia have also decided against its use. CODEX Alimentarius, an international body which sets safety standards for food commodities, formally withdrew specifications of potassium bromate in 2012 – which means the presence of bromate in food was considered unsafe and illegal for international trade.

“Globally, potassium bromate was allowed to be used on the assumption that the bromate residues would not be present in the end product. This assumption failed across the world. Residues were being detected even after reducing the allowed limits of use and therefore, countries started banning it. Our study confirms that residues of potassium bromate are present in bread sold in India,” Bhushan points out.

The food safety regulations of India allow use of potassium bromate as flour treatment agent in bread and other bakery products. Potassium bromate is a powerful oxidizing agent, use of which makes bread fluffy, soft and gives it a good finish. Under ideal baking conditions, bromate converts into bromide which is harmless. However, this does not seem to happen in practice. While there is not much labelling required on non-packaged fast foods, pre-packaged products have to disclose the flour treatment agent used.

“Industry members and experts told us that potassium bromate is widely used as it is allowed by law and offers high-quality finish to the final product. When CSE contacted companies whose products were found with potassium bromate or potassium iodate, six out of 12 came forward to deny use of these chemicals. Only one company was found to be labelling the use of potassium bromate,” says Amit Khurana, programme manager, Food Safety and Toxins team at CSE.

What did the CSE test results show?

84 per cent (32/38) samples were found with potassium bromate/iodate in the range of 1.15-22.54 parts per million (ppm). 79 per cent (19/24) samples of packaged bread, all samples of white bread, pav, bun and ready-to-eat pizza bread and 75 per cent (3/4) samples of ready-to-eat burger bread were positive.

High levels of potassium bromate/iodate were found in sandwich bread, pav, bun and white bread. Products of Perfect Bread, Harvest Gold and Britannia were those with higher levels.

No residues were found in all four tested products of Defence Bakery (Whole Wheat Bread, Jumbo Slices Brown, Brown Bread, Multigrain), one out of four samples of English Oven (Sandwich Bread) and one out of two samples of Nirula’s (burger bread of Chatpata Aloo Burger).

Only one brand – Perfect Bread – labels use of potassium bromate. No maker among those tested labels potassium iodate. Only Britannia denied use of potassium bromate or iodate.

Products of all five popular multinational fast food outlets selling pizza and burger were found positive with potassium bromate/iodate. These include KFC, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Subway and McDonald’s. Except Domino’s, others have denied use in a response to CSE.

Samples of two other fast food outlets — Nirula’s and Slice of Italy — also tested positive for potassium bromate/iodate. Slice of Italy denied use of the chemicals to CSE.

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