Potassium bromate is one of those food ingredients you love to hate. For example, added to bread, it helps to make a consistent finished product, but -- being a chemical additive -- it turns off the consumer. The news is getting worse and bromate may need to be replaced entirely. At first, the bromate was thought to convert to a harmless compound called bromide. But over the last several years, researchers have found out differently. The problem is that potassium bromate was found to cause tumors in laboratory feeding studies of rats.
The discovery of levels of 50 to 300 parts per billion in bread in Japan and England has led a number of countries to ban the use of this ingredient. The United Kingdom banned its use in 1990, and a number of other countries have followed suit, most recently Canada in June of this year. In many of the European Community countries, its use was never allowed.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration continues to monitor the situation, as well as the levels of residual bromate. The use level is currently set at 75 parts per million. Said an FDA spokesman: "If validated analytical data should demonstrate significant amounts of bromate present in bakery products, FDA will consider delisting or further limiting bromate use in bakery products."
In California, the passage of Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, has put bromate on its list of substances that are hazardous to health. The level allowed by California to avoid health warnings is 1 microgram per day per person. Using the highest allowable level, 75 ppm, comes out exactly to that level, so many who market baked goods aren't willing to take the risk and are looking for alternatives.
"A food product with that label, ['hazardous to your health,'] certainly won't sell very well," said Ann Metzmer, business manager of bakery at Quest International's Sarasota, Fla., ingredient division.
Potassium bromate acts as an oxidizing agent, acting on the gluten, a protein in wheat. It increases the strength of the dough, allowing more air incorporation for a larger, more springy product. It also increases the wheat's tolerance and makes up for variances in the flour.
"A lot of bakers are hesitant to give up bromate," said Metzmer. "The alternatives cost more. Plus, you can't use the same bromate replacer from process to process, even plant to plant in some instances. "Bromate is the same across the board. You may need to vary the level slightly, but you still use the same product. But white bread will require a different bromate replacer than multigrain. That's why most companies, including ours, have more than one."
The biggest problem with other oxidizing agents used as dough conditioners is that they act faster than the bromate, which acts primarily during proofing and baking. This makes the replacements much less tolerant of formulation or ingredient variations. It often takes a combination of ingredients to create the correct amount and timing of the oxidation.
The bromate replacers currently on the market include ascorbic acid (vitamin C), ADA (azodicarbonamide), potassium and calcium iodate, cysteine and glutathione (amino acids), enzymes and yeast derivatives.