Thursday, September 1, 2016

The "Bromate in bread" controversy-Where lies the truth?

The recent controversy regarding the presence of potassium bromate residues in bread and other wheat based bakery preparations does not help either the consumer or the industry. While it showed bakery industry as a villain, consumers became weary about the industry giving an impression that the products churned out by this sector are not safe. According to the organization which splashed this news based on a study of a few samples picked up from the Delhi market, since bromates are carcinogenic, bread made with this chemical is not safe for human consumption. Probably it may have a point and safety authorities need to look into this issue more carefully and dispassionately. Decision to ban must be taken based on facts and ground reality, not as a knee-jerk reaction. What is not understandable is the haste with which the authors of this study had gone to the press which can only serve to create panic among the consuming public. FSSAI, the "Authority" sitting in Delhi seems to have been woken up from its slumber mode and since it has authority to ban any products as it did with maggi noodles last year, one can only expect a similar reaction from this babu organization. But it is time the consumers realize the reality, give the report a cursory glance and go on with their lives till more definitive data emerge on this issue.

According to the Center for Science and Environment, a Delhi based consumer watch dog, Indian bread may cause cancer because of the existing practice of the baking industry using potassium bromate for improving the raising quality of the bread. Not only that it also includes besides bread other products like pizza, burger etc as potential cancer causing products about which consumers must be aware. It further declares that potassium iodate, an approved additive in bakery products, has the potential to adversely affect thyroid functions in human beings and therefore needs to be banned. Lo, there goes the declaration by the FSSAI banning bromate for use in food products in India and further assures the public that it would examine iodate regarding its ill effects on humans! Steps in our over concerned Mantriji, the custodian of health of the population in India, cautioning the public against panic as he is "fully seized" of the matter. He further assures the public that a thorough investigation will be undertaken to find out whether these chemicals already approved by FSSAI are really dangerous and take "appropriate action" if so. Of course every body knows that he and his ministry will promptly forget about this issue and move on to the mundane things they are doing to protect the health of Indian people!  

For those not knowing what is potassium bromate and why it is used in bakery products, it is appropriate to peep into into its history. Potassium bromate, or commonly referred to as bromate, is an oxidiser deployed to strengthen wheat dough so that its elasticity is increased, besides helping to get a uniform bake and white color for the final product viz bread. Usual practice is to use 15-30 parts per million (ppm) of potassium bromate in the flour before making the dough. For a number of years this chemical was being used extensively by the baking industry across the world with no adverse report coming from any where. One of the reasons why it is considered a safe practice is that bromate gets destroyed at the high baking temperatures which is required to make a good bread. It is well known that at the baking temperatures normally no residue is supposed to be left behind to cause any ill effect. Of course if good manufacturing practices are not followed, especially use of high concentrations of bromate or under baking, possibility of some residue remaining cannot be ruled out. 

Is use of bromate confined only to India? Of course not. There are a few countries like the US which permit use of bromates but under the condition that there is zero residue left in the product after baking. Many countries, to be on the safer side out rightly banned use of bromates. Though earlier a limit of 75 ppm was allowed which was reduced to 60 ppm later, subsequent international studies did find bromate to be of carcinogenic potential and advised all countries to avoid using it as far as possible since alternative safer additives are available to achieve the same objective as a flour improver. It was in 2012 that the Codex Alimentarius Commission of FAO/WHO withdrew specifications for bromate from its official list implying that its use should be discontinued. However, India, though a member of the Codex did not bother to implement the recommendations of this body and continued permitting bromate in the country for reasons known best to FSSAI. Is it not ironical that FSSAI has to be woken up by the limited studies of the Delhi organization to remove bromate from the list of permitted food additives? 

Before we take the side of the consumer, it is only fair to listen to the compulsions of the bakery industry in India as to why it is persisting with the use of bromate, in spite of the adverse views of the Codex. Most logical explanation would be that it is legally permitted in the country and no one can find fault with it. Interestingly in a country like the US where 60-75 ppm of bromate is legally allowed many major bakery players have shunned its use voluntarily, finding alternate flour improvers like  ascorbic acid, ammonium persulfate, ammonium chloride, amylase, glucose oxidase  etc. The attraction for the industry to use bromate is that it is the cheapest flour improver in the market, all others costing considerably more. It is the contention of the bakery industry that if it is forced to stop use of bromate, the bread prices may go up due to increased cost of manufacture. Probably this is an argument no body is going to buy that easily! The industry feels that since FSSAI does not want to shoulder the responsibility of monitoring the bromate residues in bread regularly, it is exercising its power to ban this chemical. May be there is a point but responsible industry leaders must understand that monitoring thousands of small and micro scale bakeries across this vast country is not that easy and therefore it must accept gracefully the decision to discontinue use of bromate in the country. As for potassium iodate it is not used widely in India in food preparations though it is a recommended source of iodine for fortification of salt to prevent on set of the goiter disease among the population. Probably banning this chemical may affect the salt fortification project promoted by the government. 

If the industry is to be believed the report by the Delhi organization regarding the safety of bread in India based on a limited study confined only to Delhi has caused a severe backlash against bakery products in the country as it has touched a raw nerve among the consumers, causing significant damage to its business. May be it has a point as voluntary organizations publishing such reports needs to be controlled and there should be an alliance between such groups and the government for exchanging such information before making them public. After all GOI has big institutions like CFTRI, CDRI, NIFTEM, etc and veracity of such panic causing reports must be vetted by peer scientists from these institutes before being put on the public domain. However well equipped voluntary organizations are, their facilities and experience cannot come any where to that of GOI food research institutions and hence this caution.

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