Why I'm Not Worried About Yoga Mat Chemicals in My Food

Several fast food chains are scrambling to reformulate their bread recipes following a consumer protest. But will this really make fast food any healthier? Nutrition Diva tackles the chemical controversy.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
5-minute read
Episode #272

Is There Rubber in Your Sandwich?

The fact that a food additive has other industrial uses has absolutely no bearing on anything.

One of the ways that this blogger got everyone so excited was to point out that azodicarbonamide is also used in the production of foam-rubber yoga mats and sneaker soles. Does this mean that we're eating rubber? Of course not. In fact, we're not even eating azodicarbonamide, because it breaks down into other compounds long before it reaches us. If you stop and think about it, the fact that this food additive has other industrial uses has absolutely no bearing on anything.

Of course, when you can instantly add your name to an online petition, the whole "stopping-and-thinking" process gets a little short-changed.

Why Is This Chemical in our Food?

Let's try to put the image of that blogger tearing a bite off of her yoga mat out of our minds, set aside our irrational chemophobia, and take more level-headed look at this chemical. Why is it in our food and how much harm is it doing?

Given their slavish attention to the bottom line, food companies generally only use ingredients that serve some sort of purpose. The purpose of adding azodicarbonamide to flour is to enhance gluten formation and make bread doughs rise better. Eliminating this ingredient will probably result in a slightly denser, less "springy" bread. It might also slightly change the color of the bread. Depending on how much you like super-fluffy, super-white bread, these advantages may or may not be that important to you.

How Dangerous Is Azodicarbonamide?

So much for the pros. What are the cons? The World Health Organization warns that azodicarbonamide as potentially dangerous when inhaled. But this only applies to workers who manufacture or handle large amounts of the raw material. As a food additive, azodicarbonamide may only be used in tiny amounts, accounting for no more than .0045% of treated flour.

Besides, as I said earlier, you don't actually ingest any azodicarbonamide when you eat bread made with it. During the mixing process, it breaks down into a compound called biurea, a compound that is readily excreted from the body. Other by-products include semicarbazide and ethyl carbamate.

Ethyl carbamate was formerly used as a medicine until it was discovered to cause cancer in rats. Although it's not used as an ingredient in foods, it is a natural by-product of yeast fermentation. Accordingly, you'll find trace amounts of ethyl carbamate in almost all wine, beer, whiskey, soy sauce, and breads (whether or not they are made with azodicarbonamide). Ethyl carbamate cannot be completely eliminated from these foods but efforts are being made to limit consumer exposure.

Although there is some concern about the total amount of ethyl carbamate that people might be exposed to from all the different dietary sources, the primary source for most people is alcoholic beverages. Consider it one more reason to enjoy alcohol in moderation or not at all.

But, let's get back to the protest against Subway. It's true that using azodicarbonamide as a dough strengthener increases the amount of ethyl carbamate you're getting. But removing it wouldn't completely eliminate your exposure. And here's the real point I want to make:

Removing Azodicarbonamide Doesn't Make Fast Food Healthy

Americans gave been eating fast food sandwiches made with azodicarbonamide for years. If you don't eat that stuff very often, I doubt you have anything to worry about. And if you do eat a lot of fast food sandwiches, I'd venture to say that azodicarbonamide is probably the least of your concerns. Take this chemical out of fast food and what do you have left? Food that's still low nutrients and high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats.

If you're really concerned about your health, I suggest skipping the fast food joints altogether and making make more of your food at home, using whole foods. How about we try to eat less white bread and more fruits and vegetables? Let's make our peace with the fact that eating real food sometimes costs more and/or takes more time but is well worth the investment.

But above all, let's not waste our consumer power tilting at windmills and yoga mats. I think our energy and passion would be better spent pushing for meaningful reform of the Farm Bill, for example, or improving school lunch programs and nutrition curricula in our schools.

And now it's your turn: Tell me what you think about this whole controversy and whether my arguments make sense to you. I look forward to hearing from you!

Additional Reading

Curing Chemophobia, by Michelle Francl for Slate Magazine.

Eight Toxic Foods: A Little Chemical Education, by Derek Lowe for Corante

Dangerous food and food crime scene images courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.