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Yoga mat chemical found in many foods

azodicarbonamide (ADA) is found in many common bread products
azodicarbonamide (ADA) is found in many common bread products
Steve Galindo

The average Yoga practitioner typically worries about their hands and feet slipping on their yoga mat. Now they have something more important to worry about. Eating a potentially harmful chemical found in their yoga mat. From hotdogs to fruit strudels and 'healthy' wholewheat bread the chemical azodicarbonamide (ADA) is used in a wide variety of common foods.

The compound azodicarbonamide is typically used in bread products to make the dough stronger while keeping it light and spongy. The additive is also an ingredient of shoe rubber, plastics and attic insulation, according to research released by The Environmental Working Group (EWG). It is also used in rubber and plastics. In the plastics industry, ADA is mixed into polymer plastic gel to generate tiny gas bubbles. The results are materials that are strong, light, spongy and malleable.

ADA is used in foods made by at least 130 American brands including Jimmy Dean, Sara Lee, Pillsbury, White Castle, Marie Calledar's and Country Hearth.

As a chemical additive, ADA has been generally accepted in U.S. food items because it hasn't necessarily been determined to harm people who eat it in small doses (though workers handling ADA may be at risk for medical issues such as respiratory problems and skin sensitization according to the World Health Organization.). ADA is banned in Australia and Europe, but the FDA allows concentrations up to 45 parts per million in U.S. foods.

According to FoodBabe, who has campaigned against the use of ADA in foods, when the chemical partially degrades with the heat of processing, it can form trace amounts of semicarbazide, which shows carcinogenicity and also has been shown to cause tumors.

Subway earlier this year announced that it was removing the ingredient Azodicarbonamide (ADA) as part of an ongoing effort to improve recipes in the U.S. Since then, the Environmental Working Group has researched more than 80,000 food items and discovered that ADA is on the ingredient lists of lots of well-known supermarket brands of breads, croutons, snacks, and sandwiches. Mariano’s a local supermarket chain uses the ingredient liberally in its own label baked goods. Over five hundred foods use the ingredient as well—from pizzas to tortillas, hot dog buns, and more.

Other restaurant chains—such as Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Arby’s, and Burger King—have been known to use azodicarbonamide in their foods, too, and the EWG is set to launch a campaign against the chemical's use.

Regulations are currently such that food products can put "natural" on its packaging, even if there are chemicals present, because there's not yet an official definition of what "natural" actually is. Your best bet? Carefully check those ingredient labels, and stick to the least processed products with the fewest number of additives—or even make your own homemade foods whenever you can.

One thing is certain, ADA is not food, as food has been defined for most of human history. It is an industrial chemical added to bread for the convenience of industrial bakers. In centuries past, flour fresh from the mill had to age several months before it could be kneaded into dough and popped into the oven. But in 1956, a New Jersey chemical, pharmaceuticals and engineering firm called Wallace & Tiernan, best known for inventing a mass water chlorination process, discovered that ADA caused flour to “achieve maturing action without long storage.” The result, the firm’s patent application stated, was commercial bread that was “light, soft and suitably moist, yet suitably firm or resilient, and that [had] crusts and internal properties of a pleasing and palatable nature.” The FDA approved ADA as a food additive in 1962. It is not approved for use in either Australia or the European Union.

In the early 1990s, ADA became the preferred dough conditioner of many American commercial bakers as a result of California’s Proposition 65, which went into effect in 1987. This law required California authorities to list certain chemicals in food as “possibly dangerous to human health.” Potassium bromate, then a common dough conditioner, was found to be carcinogenic in test animals and made the Prop 65 list in 1991. ADA was widely adopted as a safer substitute.

Over the years, health activists concerned about synthetic chemicals in food have attacked the widespread use of ADA, but it did not attract nationwide headlines until Food Babe circulated a petition demanding that Subway, among the nation’s biggest fast-food outlets, stop using the chemical in its loaves. Subway responded that ADA was safe, but even so, it had quietly been seeking a substitute over the past year. The company pointed out that ADA is “found in the breads of most chains such as Starbuck’s, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Arby’s, Burger King, and Dunkin Donuts.” Those other fast food giants joined Subway on the defensive.

EWG's Food Database, which is now being tested but is still under development, shows that ADA is widespread in supermarket items as well as fast food. The EWG project is being built on data gathered by Food Essentials, a company that compiles details about the ingredients in foods sold in American supermarkets. To this data, EWG is adding layers drawn from its research on hazard concerns such as pesticide residues, food additives, and contaminants such as mercury. EWG’s Food Database will be the first of its kind – looking deeply at the nutritional value of foods sold in supermarkets as well as their potential health hazards and degree of processing. The interactive project is funded by support from the GRACE Communications Foundation, the Brin Wojcicki Foundation and EWG’s online community and partners. It is scheduled to be made available to the public in the fall.

The consumers’ search for healthier food may get easier as the “clean label” trend in food manufacturing gains momentum. The trade journal Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery reported that commercial bakers and snack food manufacturers are seeking new, better ingredients “mostly due to consumer demand for better-for-you products with clean labels and no genetically modified organisms (GMOs).”

Few choices you make have as powerful an effect on your health and the planet as what you choose to eat. Foods can contain many harmful substances, including pesticides, unhealthy additives or contaminants. Organic produce and meat products contain less of these harmful chemicals. Consumers selecting organic produce ingest fewer pesticides. They also eat meats that harbor fewer deadly bacteria. Reading ingredient labels and choosing organic foods can lead to a healthier you. So take responsibility for your health and start choosing foods without chemical additives such as ADA while avoiding those companies that continue to use it.

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