Dozens of Baked Goods Found to Have Potentially Cancer-Causing Additive

CC BY 2.0. heinz tschanz-hofmann

A new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) finds that dozens of common baked goods contain potassium bromate, a potentially cancer-causing food additive. Potassium bromate is banned in many countries, but in the United States, it’s still on grocery store shelves.

Food manufacturers mix potassium bromate with flour, to improve the elasticity and strength of dough. The ingredient speeds up the process of making bread and also gives baked goods a white color.

However, the additive is associated with some concerning health effects. Researchers in Japan found that lab animals exposed to the chemical were more likely to develop both benign and malignant tumors.

“Obviously there haven't been any intentional studies that expose humans to high levels of potassium bromate,” said Jose Aguayo, EWG database analyst and co-author of the report. “But there have been studies done on human cells.”

Aguayo told TreeHugger that in studies of human cell cultures, potassium bromate has been seen to have a genotoxic effect, or in other words, causes damage to the cell’s DNA. Aguayo said that while this doesn’t prove potassium bromate causes cancer in humans, it suggests that it could.

Manufactuers say that the baking process converts potassium bromate into a salt, potassium bromide. But if ingredients aren’t mixed at the correct ratios, or aren’t cooked properly, the original compound may remain. The EWG report cites testing in the UK where some samples of finished bread products were found to have potassium bromate residues.

A number of countries have banned the use of potassium bromate in food manufacturing. The European Union, the UK, China, Canada and Brazil all forbid the use of the additive in baking. However, in the US, the FDA approves its use up to 75 parts per million in flour, and manufacturers must list the ingredient on food labels. Only the state of California requires foods containing this additive to carry a warning label.

Using ingredient information from its Food Scores database, the EWG found 86 different consumer products containing potassium bromate. Weis Kaiser rolls, Goya pastry dough, and Canadian Home Style Pizza are among those products (you can find the complete list here). The EWG includes potassium bromate among its "dirty dozen" food additives to avoid eating.

Consumers wishing to avoid foods with this ingredient can look for “potassium bromate” or “bromated flour” on food packages. Or you can use EWG’s Food Scores app.

EWG is also launching a petition asking brands to stop using potassium bromate in their products.