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Until Subway announced it was pulling azodicarbonamide (ADA) out of its bread last week, few people had ever heard of this food additive found in many baked goods. As it turns out, it’s more than just a way to make bread softer and more elastic — it’s also an industrial chemical used in plastic and rubber products like yoga mats and flip flops. And while you’ll no longer be eating a heaping dose of ADA with your Subway sandwich, if you buy bread, bagels, tortillas, or hamburger buns at your local grocery store, chances are you’re still being exposed. In fact, a recent report by the Environmental Working Group reveals that ADA is present in about 500 common supermarket products made by 130 different companies – even brands that pride themselves on being “natural” and “healthy.”
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So just how toxic is ADA to humans? The truth is experts don’t really know. The chemical has never been tested in humans in the concentrations people are likely to be exposed to if they ingest numerous products containing it. What we do know is that azodicarbonamide can potentially increase the risk of asthma, allergies, and even skin problems in people who are exposed. In an era where allergies, food sensitivities, and immune disorders are on the rise, that’s not good news.
While ADA is considered safe to use in the US and Canada, Australia and the European Union have banned it. The FDA considers ADA non-toxic in concentrations below 45 parts per million, but bakery and food workers who are exposed to much larger amounts have reported respiratory symptoms and skin reactions from handling products containing it. The Environmental Working Group and New York Senator Chuck Schumer have already called on the FDA to ban the chemical in food, but considering that the agency refuses to ban the known toxin BPA from food packaging and took decades to question the safety of antibacterial agents, it’s unlikely we’ll see results anytime soon.
Subway isn’t the only company that’s been caught using this potentially-harmful substance in their baked goods: Starbucks, Marrie Callendar’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s, and Dunkin Donuts all use it to keep their food from becoming dry and stale, too. If you’re prone to respiratory or skin issues, your best bet for avoiding ADA is to read labels carefully, select the freshest and least-processed products you can find, avoid fast food, and cook at home whenever possible.