Is Subway Bread Safe to Eat? The Popular Eatery Addresses Chemical Content in Food

In February, Subway Restaurants announced that they were removing azodicarbonamide, a chemical used in flour, from their bread production process. The move appeared to be in reaction to a blogger’s petition requesting that the company remove the chemical because it is also used in the production of yoga mats and shoe rubber. The petition also noted that Subway does not include the chemical in bread produced for the European and Australian market, and therefore should not use it in the United States.

Subway bread no longer includes Azodicarbonamide
Subway has removed Azodicarbonamide from their bread production process in response to a blogger.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I don’t know about you, but I have eaten my share of Subway sandwiches. It has always been a quick, yet seemingly healthy alternative to other fast food restaurants. But these recent events have made me wonder: Is azodicarbonamide really a dangerous chemical, or simply one that received a bum rap?

The adding of azodicarbonamide to flour was first tested in 1956 by New Jersey chemical, pharmaceutical and engineering firm Wallace & Tiernan. They discovered that when azodicarbonamide, an odorless chemical compound, is added to flour, it creates a catalyst to reduce the aging process of fresh flour from months to days.

This discovery solved one of the major problems with large scale bread production. For centuries, the best bread came from flour that had been aged for months, somewhat like the process used in winemaking. This was a barrier to entry for large scale bread production, since it added huge costs in warehousing space.

The discovery of azodicarbonamide as an aging catalyst literally changed all of that overnight. By adding the chemical to the bread-making process, large quantities of high quality flour could be obtained in only a few days. This reduced the warehouse space necessary to produce bread, thus lowering the barriers to entry and allowed more companies to enter the market. Eventually, this chemical allowed for the expansion and proliferation of familiar brands like Wonder Bread, Pillsbury, Little Debbie and Subway.

However, simply because the chemical was used in making bread didn’t limit scientists from discovering other useful purposes for it. Scientists soon discovered that this chemical compound was also helpful in the creation of industrial products, particularly plastics. When added to plastic production and heated to about 200 degrees Celsius, it begins to form tiny bubbles or foam. When cooled, these bubbles harden, creating a final product that is pliable, yet still light– perfect for products like yoga mats.

Because Azodicarbonamide was used to also produce yoga mats, it is not longer in Subway bread.
Azodicarbonamide is used to produce many products, including yoga mats.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For years, nobody seemed to care about the dual uses of azodicarbonamide. However, the extensive power of the Internet has provided people with more access to information; this has led to more public dialogue regarding chemical use in food production and caused it to come under greater scrutiny. People, like the blogger Food Babe, discovered this particular chemical’s multiple uses. This result was a PR disaster for the companies using the chemical, since many people are opposed to the idea that an ingredient used to create yoga mats is also used in food production. However, is it really uncommon that a chemical can be useful in both food and industrial production?

There are many chemicals used in food production that also cross over to other types of products. For example, one of the key components of sheet rock is calcium sulfate. Calcium sulfate is also used as a food additive in the production of tofu. Even something as basic as table salt can be found in thousands of industrial products, from glass to plastics.

The fact is that azodicarbonamide, like other chemicals, is a versatile chemical compound that can be used in a myriad of ways to benefit society. It can be mixed with flour to create a catalyst that reduces the length of time necessary to produce high quality flour that gives bread the taste and color that we expect. Or it can be combined with plastic under different circumstances and be helpful in the creation of light and flexible products. Because it is utilized in both processes, does that make it harmful?

The FDA has tested and approved the use of azodicarbonamide in small doses within the baking process. The current allowable limit is 45 parts per million when added to bread dough. The benefit gained from this process is high quality bread produced in massive amounts to feed the demands of our consumer society.

It is true that if azodicarbonamide is used in large quantities, then it can be dangerous. However, even water, if consumed in large quantities, can be dangerous to people.

In this particularly case, it appears that Subway may have reacted somewhat excessively to fears about this versatile chemical, choosing to avoid further scrutiny rather than defending the use of azodicarbonamide. When it comes to brand protection, it is important to alleviate customer concern and offer assurance of a product’s safety. But it is illustrative as a lesson in handling these types of issues in the future.

Instead of caving to pressure, food and beverage companies should consider releasing information about the benefits of chemicals used in the food production process. A proactive campaign to demonstrate the safety of a product will help the public understand the benefits that can be obtained from these additions. If Subway explained to the public how azodicarbonamide is used and how it helps in the bread creation process, perhaps the initiation of positive dialogue would have helped more people see the situation in a different light.

Azodicarbonamide is certainly not the first chemical involved in food production to be called into question, nor will it be the last, as the availability of information continues to increase. The food and beverage industry needs to be proactive in tracking and monitoring chemicals like azodicarbonamide to ensure that they are handled and used properly.  One way to do this is through a chemical inventory management system which can easily track the amount of chemicals consumed in a process to ensure that these chemicals are not overused. It is important to learn from this event so that companies may respond differently the next time. This way, other chemicals with dual uses may avoid receiving the same bad rap as azodicarbonamide.

As for Subway, the company claimed that azodicarbonamide will be completely removed from their U.S. bread production process as of April 18, 2014.  Although the company is not disclosing exactly how they will produce bread for their U.S. operations, it can be assumed that it will be a process similar to their  European and Australian operations.

Here at Accelrys, we are dedicated to helping companies meet industry standards of production and safety. We offer a number of products to address the needs of the food and beverage industry, including chemical inventory management systems. For more information, please visit our website today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *