The innocuous slice of bread in our breakfast plate could contain cancer-causing chemicals, a study conducted by Centre for Science and Environment has found.

Eighty-four per cent of bread and bakery samples tested by CSE were found to have residues of two chemicals — potassium bromate (KBrO3) and potassium iodate (KIO3). Both are used as flour “improvers” or “strengtheners” to make the bread softer and fluffier.

While their use is banned in a number of countries and regions — the EU, Australia, New Zealand — India and the US continue to use it. Samples from major bread manufacturers — such as Harvest Gold, Britannia, Perfect, and Le Marche — tested positive. Bromate is classified as class 2B carcinogen or possibly carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Worse, most players are flouting labelling norms and not mentioning them on their packets. Besides IARC, a joint committee of the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, had classified bromates as genotoxic carcinogens which can cause irreversible genetic damage and said they should not be present in food consumed.

Bromate was earlier considered safe for baking purposes, given the assumption that in ideal conditions it would leave no residue. However, the tests prove otherwise.

In the case of potassium iodate, the health concerns lie in the possibility of excessive intake of iodine which can lead to thyroid malfunction and even thyroid cancer. This chemical’s use as a flour treatment agent was disapproved by the WHO-FAO joint committee way back in 1968. “The recommended daily intake of iodine is about 150-200 microgram (or 250-325 microgram of potassium iodate) which is fulfilled by about 10 grams of iodised salt,” said Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General of CSE.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India’s guideline on the use of these two agents puts the limit at 50 ppm. However, for all purposes this is limited to being a theoretical one as there are no standards for “acceptable” amount of residue in the final product, Bhushan added.

He said India should consider alternatives such as ascorbic acid and glucose oxidase. This would increase the price of a 400 gram loaf by about 1.5 paise and 2 paise, respectively.

Companies react

“…We only use additives/ingredients duly approved under the FSSAI. The flour used by us is not treated with Potassium Bromate/Potassium Iodate. We do undertake certificate of analysis/undertaking from our flour suppliers on no usage of Potassium Bromate/Potassium Iodate in our flour supplies. We also carry out regular assessments of the flour to ensure compliance in this regard,” a spokesperson for Jubilant FoodWorks that owns Domino’s Pizza India said.

Ranjit Talwar, Country Head, Subway Systems India, said, “Subway does not use Potassium Bromate and Potassium Iodate in the flour utilised in baking its breads. Instead, Subway uses a bread improver, based on an enzyme (protein) technology derived from natural sources, to improve the overall performance of its breads.”