Turns out there’s not much evidence to indicate that azodicarbonamide, a chemical deployed in foam mats, rubber sneaker soles, and industrially baked bread, is really at all that bad for one’s health when consumed in very tiny amounts.
Vari "Food Babe" Hari garnered national attention last month with her widely circulated petition beseeching Subway to cease using azodicarbonamide in its "fresh" bread. The activist had garnered nearly 60,000 signatures when the fast-food chain announced it was already planning on swapping the ingredient out as part of its ongoing "bread improvement efforts."
Whether the petition led to the change or not, NPR reports that there are seemingly few risks to using the scary-sounding chemical the way it’s been used, yoga mats or not. Penn State food science professor John Coupland explains that azodicarbonamide breaks down into semicarbazide and urethane during cooking. Those compounds may pose a health risk, but more likely these components are quickly metabolized and excreted.
The Salt also notes that the demonstrable health risks associated with the chemical are mostly limited to factory workers — not bread bakers, necessarily — who handle large amounts of azodicarbonamide, an asthmatic agent. But as far as its use as a food additive, the FDA set a limit of 45 parts per million for the chemical in dough, and that’s a very small amount.
This hasn’t stopped activists from pointing out that the chemical seems to be omnipresent in industrialized baking operations. David Andrews and Elaine Shannon of the Environmental Working Group recently posted a very long list documenting the industrial applications of azodicarbonamide called "Nearly 500 ways to make a yoga mat sandwich," which lists, well, hundreds of starchy foods that contain the chemical, everything from hot-dog buns to frozen garlic bread to supermarket doughnuts.
The chemical, which adds volume to proofing dough and acts as a kind of bleaching agent, is evidently not integral to industrial baking process, because it can be replaced with something less contentious. But azodicarbonamide is added to bread precisely because it gets the dough behave more like traditional loaves. So maybe it’s not the potential harm that’s the most troubling thing about the chemical, but the fact that so many producers depend on it to produce inexpensive breads. Or, as Coupland puts it: "The main benefit azodicarbonamide offers to consumers is it reduces costs by making a better dough from a poorer quality (cheaper!) flour."